B O O K S B Y I L A N S TA VA N S
Fiction The Disappearance • The One-Handed Pianist and Other Stories
Nonfiction The Riddle of Cantinflas • Dictionary Days • On Borrowed
Words • Spanglish • The Hispanic Condition • Art and Anger • Resurrecting Hebrew * A Critic’s Journey • The Inveterate Dreamer • Octavio Paz:
A Meditation • Imagining Columbus • Bandido • ¡Lotería! (with Teresa
Villegas) • José Vasconcelos: The Prophet of Race • Return to Centro
Histórico • Singer’s Typewriter and Mine • Gabriel García Márquez: The
Early Years, 1927 – 1970 • The United States of Mestizo • Reclaiming Travel
(with Joshua Ellison) • Quixote: The Novel and the World • Borges, the Jew
Judaica The New World Haggadah
Conversations Knowledge and Censorship (with Verónica Albin) •
What Is la hispanidad? (with Iván Jaksić) • Ilan Stavans: Eight Conversations (with Neal Sokol) • With All Thine Heart (with Mordecai Drache)
• Conversations with Ilan Stavans • Love and Language (with Verónica
Albin) • ¡Muy Pop! (with Frederick Aldama) • Thirteen Ways of Looking
at Latino Art (with Jorge J. E. Gracia) • Laughing Matters (with Frederick
Children’s Book Golemito (with Teresa Villegas)
Anthologies The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature • Tropical
Synagogues • The Oxford Book of Latin American Essays • The Schocken
Book of Modern Sephardic Literature • Lengua Fresca (with Harold Augenbraum) • Wáchale! • The Scroll and the Cross • The Oxford Book of
Jewish Stories • Mutual Impressions • Growing Up Latino (with Harold
Augenbraum) • The fsg Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry
• Oy, Caramba!
Graphic Novels Latino USA (with Lalo Alcaraz) • Mr. Spic Goes
to Washington (with Roberto Weil) • Once @ 9:53 am (with Marcelo
Brodsky) • El Iluminado (with Steve Sheinkin) • A Most Imperfect Union
(with Lalo Alcaraz)
Translations Sentimental Songs, by Felipe Alfau • The Plain in Flames,
by Juan Rulfo (with Harold Augenbraum) • The Underdogs, by Mariano
Azuela (with Anna More) • Lazarillo de Tormes
Editions César Vallejo: Spain, Take This Chalice from Me • The Poetry
of Pablo Neruda • Encyclopedia Latina (4 volumes) • Pablo Neruda: I Explain a Few Things • The Collected Stories of Calvert Casey • Isaac Bashevis
Singer: Collected Stories (3 volumes) • Cesar Chavez: An Organizer’s Tale
• Rubén Darío: Selected Writings • Pablo Neruda: All the Odes • Latin
Music (2 volumes)
General The Essential Ilan Stavans
BOOKS BY ADÁL
Photography The Evidence of Things Not Seen • Portraits of the Puerto
Rican Experience • Mango Mambo • Out of Focus Nuyoricans • Blueprints
for a Nation / Jíbaro • Falling Eyelids
Essay by Ilan Stavans / Auto-Portraits by ADÁL
Duke University Press Durham and London 2017
Essay by Ilan Stavans © 2017 Duke
University Press. Auto-portraits
© ADÁL. All rights reserved.
Printed in the United States of
America on acid-free paper ∞
Designed by Amy Ruth Buchanan
Typeset in Arno Pro by Copperline
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-
Names: Stavans, Ilan, author. |
Maldonado, Adâl Alberto, photographer.
Title: I love my selfie / essay by Ilan
Stavans ; auto-portraits by Adâl.
Description: Durham : Duke University
Press, 2017. | Includes index.
Identifiers: lccn 2016040908 (print)
lccn 2016041333 (ebook)
isbn 9780822363385 (hardcover : alk.
isbn 9780822363491 (pbk. : alk. paper)
isbn 9780822373179 (e-book)
Subjects: lcsh: Self-portraits — United
States — Exhibitions. | Self-presentation —
United States — Exhibitions. |
Photography — United States —
Psychological aspects — Exhibitions.
| Maldonado, Adâl Alberto — Self-
portraits — Exhibitions. | Social media —
United States — Psychological aspects.
Classification: lcc n7619.s73 2017 (print) |
lcc n7619 (ebook) | ddc 770.973 — dc23
lc record available at https://lccn.loc.gov
Cover art: Autoportrait. ADÁL, The
Penetration of an Object from a Closed
To John Berger,
for teaching me the difference
looking and seeing . . .
And to Miriam Sokoloff.
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This above all: to thine own self be true,
and it must follow, as the night the day,
thou canst not then be false to any man.
—Hamlet, Act I, Scene 3
This page intentionally left blank
1 Chillin’ / 1
2 The Plight of Narcissus / 10
3 “Decisive Moments” / 18
4 Out of Focus / 28
Go F_ck Your Selfie: A Portfolio
adál / 39
5 Alone with Others / 91
6 Rembrandt’s Instamatic / 98
7 Tropic Noir / 113
8 And Then Comes Darkness / 122
Acknowledgments / 129
Index / 131
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Of the hundreds — nah, thousands! — of cellfies I usually store in
my smartphone, including pictures of family and friends, as well as
consequential places and occasions, a generous percentage is what
I call “false starts.” In these the relation between cause and effect is
inverted. Rather than my taking a spontaneous picture of a natural
moment, I manipulate nature to fit it into a picture. For instance, I
have an image of a tombstone in a Jewish cemetery near Havana.
There is an uneven pile of pebbles on top of it. When visiting a
grave, it is a Jewish custom to leave a stone, not flowers, on it as
a memento. The reasons, I believe, are manifold. Flowers perish
and stones last, symbolizing the permanence of memory; according to the Talmud, a person’s soul lingers on earth for a while after
death, and placing a stone is a way to prolong that stay and even to
encourage the soul to return; and then there is a semantic explanation: the Hebrew word for “pebble” is tz’ror, which also means
“bond.” This verbal link turns the stone placed on the tombstone
into a bridge between this world and the next.
During my visit to Havana, the grave I was compelled to photograph — its structure destroyed by vandals — had beer bottles and
other garbage piled up on top. I opted to clean it up and even felt
righteous about it. In doing so, I added, for aesthetic purposes, several extra pebbles forming an irregular structure. Thus, I doctored
nature to my own needs. Of course, there is nothing either new or special about
this. In fact, the strategy is as old as photography itself: we don’t use the camera
to capture what we see; we invent what we see in order to take a picture. Except
that the smartphone camera is, supposedly, a lens through which we capture life
as is, unadulterated, in the spur of the moment — life uncontrolled by the eye.
In and of itself, maybe this anecdote is a false start — mind you, I got rid of
several others — to a disquisition like this one on the profound role selfies play
in Western civilization in general (whatever that means!) and in American culture in particular (again, if such a thing exists!), and on the oeuvre of Adál, the
groundbreaking Nuyorican artist whose oeuvre, about the search for selfhood,
I have admired for decades. After all, I myself don’t show up in the photograph,
meaning it is a cellfie but not a selfie, aka a cellphone picture but not a shot of
myself. Nor is the image especially memorable, at least not to others. I keep it
in my photo app as evidence of an enlightening journey to Cuba. I don’t think
I have shown it to anyone else. Anyway, I like the idea of starting this narrative
attempt, imperfect as it is likely to be, with what is probably a misstep, since my
purpose is to explore both authenticity and dishonesty. Or maybe I should say
it in another way: I want to talk about truth in selfies, aware as I am that it is a
I find it curious that we condemn dishonesty at all times on ethical grounds,
yet everyone engages in it. That is what hypocrisy is: being duplicitous. Think
of the famous line Shakespeare gives to Polonius, King Claudius’s chief councillor. Polonius, a single father, advises his son Laertes, who is about to depart for
France, “This above all: to thine own self be true.” No better fatherly instruction
might be given. Yet Polonius fails to explain how Laertes should be truthful.
Should “true” be taken to mean faithful, realistic, practical? Is it synonymous
with moral uprightness? Is “to thine own self be true” the same as “to thy self be
authentic”? And how should Laertes go about finding the road of truth, if such
a road exists?
At any rate, the imperative is to be direct, honest, and straightforward. Hamlet is both a reflective and a reflexive play: it meditates on existence as a whole
and also on its own theatricality, on its own existence as a play. The evidence
abounds: for example, Hamlet’s endless ruminations, his agonizing to-be-and-
not-to-be (that is the question!), and the insertion of a play within the play in
act III, scene 2. It wonders whether we control thoughts or they control us. It
2 C H A P T E R O N E
wonders what our role is as witnesses of injustice. And, equally crucial, it investigates the role of art as a tool for change.
In Polonius’s statement, an important aspect not yet seized at this point by the
audience is that he himself is a conniver, a kind of Lord Chamberlain. His advice to Laertes is thus ironic, to the point of turning the statement upside down.
Polonius the schemer might actually be telling his son to be untrue, to behave in
ways that are advantageous to him. “This above all: to thine own self be true, and
engage in dishonesty if this advances your cause.” This advice will prove useful to
Laertes. In other words, to be truthful is to satisfy the needs of the self.
Inherently, false starts are dishonest; that is, they are untruthful. Yet this
is the kind of dishonesty everyone practices. My tombstone photo reveals by
way of hiding; it delivers a message that looks unplanned but was meticulously
planned. The image it offers is a disguise, a façade, a front. Were I to circulate
Ceci n’est pas une pipe, no one, I assume, would complain that it was counterfeit.
Honestly, I myself am not conflicted about my photo’s fakeness. I’m happy because I took the picture I wanted to take. It is false, sure, but so is life as a whole.
A false start isn’t a defeat; it is simply another way to engage the world. In his
lucid essay “Of Cannibals,” Montaigne says that there are defeats more triumphant than victories. I for one see these false starts on my smartphone’s cellfie
museum as statements of purpose: they are snapshots of reality as I want reality
Late in 2015, I discovered a red spot in my upper left cheek, almost under
my eye. I thought it would disappear on its own but it didn’t. I consulted a
doctor, who told me it was a basal cell carcinoma, a mild case of skin cancer,
and it needed to be removed. The surgery was painful: a two-inch incision,
sealed with nineteen stitches. The wound took a couple of weeks to heal and
several months to integrate itself to the landscape of my face. Early on, whenever I would look at myself in the mirror, I would feel like a pirate: my face was
strange, different. The photos I would saw of myself contained something false,
an aspect of me I needed to update, to reappraise, to appropriate. Building a
new self-image took time and stamina. In retrospect, my situation was small
potatoes compared with more invasive, long-lasting cancers. Yet the effort at
reassessing my self-image, the face I had known and the face I now had, was
nonetheless traumatic. I learned to love the scar. It is true that there are defeats
more triumphant than victories.
C H I L L I N ’ 3
Now think of the errors called parapraxis, commonly known as Freudian
slips. These gaffes are more than mere failures of concentration; they are perceived as linguistic faux pas. Psychoanalysts love them (everyone else is horrified!) because they are a window into the unconscious, a way to seize on the
self while it is vulnerable and unguarded. Freudian slips are also snippets of
the self when it isn’t fully in control, a vintage way of understanding that beyond
the façade of restraint we project lurk other intangible forces. These bloopers
offer a fascinating opportunity to explore the relationship between what is concrete with what is secret in our life, between the lies the self tells itself and others
in order to enhance its credibility and the lies it keeps from itself — the part that
is beyond the self ’s reach. The reverse of a Freudian slip might be a lapse in
which a person suddenly forgets a word; here it is not that unwelcome information has surfaced but that needed information has been scrapped. A hairdresser
friend of mine calls these hiatuses “brain farts.” The difference between a Freudian slip and a brain fart is that one reveals, whereas the other conceals.
What these practices show is that the self is an inefficient, ineffective manager, that certain forces are beyond its domain, and that it likes to parade itself
as strong, morally upright, and authentic when in fact its rule depends on deceit.
Samuel Beckett, in Worstward Ho, says: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try
again. Fail again. Fail better.”
The term selfie (occasionally spelled selfy) is said to have originated in 2002,
in an Australian online forum. Since then the frequency with which it is used
worldwide has increased exponentially, in part because other languages (Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, Hebrew, Arabic . . . ) have incorporated it as their own, occasionally as a derisive artifact that satirizes “the American way of life.” There is something of a Hallmark card in the sound of the term:
be selfless in a selfie; that is, be free and let others know. Or, paraphrasing Oscar
Wilde, be yourself in a selfie because everyone else is already taken.
Selfies, hence, are approximations of the self. They are a business card for
an emotionally attuned world. They promise smiles, happiness, and engagement. In delivering these ingredients, they shape mass taste. Selfies can’t stay
still; they need to be constantly disseminated, navigating the globe, posted all
over for others to endorse with a two-thumbs-up. A selfie taken but stored isn’t
the real thing; a real selfie needs to be distributed through social media. Voyeurs
become consumers. The media functions as an educated eye, distinguishing be4 C H A P T E R O N E
tween average selfies (paraded in Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat,
for instance) and high-brow selfies (Tumblr).
This ecosystem allows them to be in a popularity contest. People like irreverence, sarcasm; they dislike snobbism, pedantry, aloofness. Certain topics become taboo. For instance, I have seen a selfie taken next to a corpse and found
it nauseating. (It never crossed my mind, in the Havana cemetery, to take a selfie
with the gorgeous tombstone in the background. Taking such a photo would
probably have been more irreverent than my irreverent act of cleaning up the
grave.) Likewise, I don’t often come across selfies taken in a state of depression.
Or featuring blood, although I once watched a smartphone video, posted by the
New York Times, of a bunch of Arab terrorists who had captured a large boat.
They were doing rounds shooting at escapees swimming away in the ocean.
One of the shots hits its target, and blood colors the area where the victim was.
The terrorists laugh, then congregate triumphantly to take a selfie near the prow.
And I have also seen a selfie with blood whose purpose was to serve as evidence
for the police, as proof that a fight between two neighbors had taken place.
The reason violent selfies are uncommon is that these aren’t aspects of existence people want to share with others; on the contrary, they would rather keep
these facets to themselves. For, in the end, the selfie is a portal through which
we share the handsomest, least frightening side of our self. The word “fright”
isn’t part of the selfie lexicon.
Selfies are about catching ourselves halfway, in the act — and art — of living,
moving around casually, being informal, laid-back, blasé, doing nothing but, to
use today’s slang, “chillin’.” Or else, about being a trickster, a fool, maybe even
a dissenter. As a selfie I once got stated it, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners.”
In the selfie, the mandate is to look impeccably cool in our unawareness, to
be in flagrante delicto without a crime even taking place. “Funny you mention
that — I was just thinking I don’t care,” reads the caption. In selfies I take of myself, for instance, I pretend to be obese. Or my face is divided in the mirror. Or
I’m in the Plaza de la Revolución, in Havana, Cuba, with a wall-size drawing of
Camilo Cienfuegos, a leader in Fidel Castro’s uprising, behind me. This is me
and isn’t — it’s an impostor, a pretender.
Needless to say, this state of blissfulness isn’t achieved easily. The photographer — the selfie taker — must work hard at it. Exiling pain isn’t enough. Being
calm, composed, and level-headed, being normal, isn’t enough; one must hide
C H I L L I N ’ 5
Ilan Stavans, Selfie #31 (Lite), Amherst,
Massachusetts, 2015. Photo by author.
Ilan Stavans, Selfie #27 (Divided), Amherst,
Massachusetts, 2015. Photo by author.
Ilan Stavans, Selfie #18 (with Camilo),
Havana, Cuba, 2015. Photo by author.
any displacement, any sense of confusion. And, if possible, one must give the
impression that the selfie is a product of a disinterested eye. My son Isaiah was
once at a Cuban restaurant. A prominent jazz musician (my son called him “the
Cuban Gaucho”) was sitting behind him. My son didn’t want to attract the musician’s attention, yet he wanted proof that he had been near him. So he took a
photograph of himself in such a way that the musician in the background could
be clearly spotted. This was only a selfie out of necessity: he wasn’t intent on
getting a photo of himself, but no other social act would have satisfied his need
of capturing the jazz musician’s face. This strategy tries to make the selfie blend
into the environment. Yet that disinterest is defined by a tunnel vision.
In short, the selfie is performance achieved through overstatement. It is a
show-and-tell game in which secrets are supposedly revealed, made public for
everyone to savor them. In the selfie, we all become normal, ordinary dwellers
in the quandary of self-absorption. Samuel Johnson argued that the narcissist
doesn’t hide his faults from himself, but persuades himself that they escape the
notice of others. The selfie does the exact same. It isn’t about the person — it’s
about the persona, a word derived from the Latin term for mask. The self, apparently, is made of multiple masks, which is the way it projects itself to the
world. For our self isn’t a unity but a multiplicity. Thus, as the night follows the
day, being true to one’s self means being fundamentally adaptable, contingent,
provisional, all of which are attributes of falseness.
The selfie blurs the line between the domestic and the communal, between
what is mine and what belongs to others. It goes without saying that photography was always about blurring that line, but the selfie has taken the approach a
step further. Mick Jagger was once sitting at a table next to mine at a Manhattan
restaurant. This anecdote isn’t like the one of my son Isaiah with “the Cuban
Gaucho.” I didn’t recognize Jagger. Or maybe I didn’t care who he was. Frankly, I
have never been interested in the rock music scene as much as I am in Latin jazz.
Be that as it may, our tables were contiguous. It was a time before smartphones
but not before paparazzi. After dinner, the waiter asked Jagger if he could take a
picture with him. Jagger demurred. Tonight he wasn’t a rock star, he said. Tonight
he was a private citizen. The waiter politely objected, but he ultimately complied.
Were the incident to occur now, perhaps the waiter, despite Jagger’s resistance,
would have sat next to him at the table and turned the camera on himself next to
C H I L L I N ’ 7
Author Ilan Stavans Isbn 9780822363491 File size 70MB Year 2017 Pages 152 Language English File format PDF Category Cinema Book Description: FacebookTwitterGoogle+TumblrDiggMySpaceShare What explains our current obsession with selfies? In I Love My Selfie noted cultural critic Ilan Stavans explores the selfie’s historical and cultural roots by discussing everything from Greek mythology and Shakespeare to Andy Warhol, James Franco, and Pope Francis. He sees selfies as tools people use to disguise or present themselves as spontaneous and casual. This collaboration includes a portfolio of fifty autoportraits by the artist ADÁL; he and Stavans use them as a way to question the notion of the self and to engage with artists, celebrities, technology, identity, and politics. Provocative and engaging, I Love My Selfie will change the way readers think about this unavoidable phenomenon of twenty-first-century life. Download (70MB) Diane Arbuss 1960s: Auguries of Experience Transferential Poetics, from Poe to Warhol Lou Scheimer: Creating The Filmation Generation Exploring the Selfie The Films of James Cameron: Critical Essays Load more posts