The Politics of Selfies
Trudeaumania and the political spectacle
Images are everywhere. At least in the Western world, we are obsessed with them, and it is likely to be increasingly so in the rest of the world as well, if only because of globalization. Facebook and Instagram are good contemporary testimony to this assertion, adding to an already undeniable cult of celebrity in the West. However, one of its most symptomatic instantiations of the cult of the image is perhaps the rise and pervasiveness of the selfie. In the usual selfie, one takes pictures of themselves in order to show others; in this way, one offers oneself as a spectacle to others. It is maybe on this point that Guy Debord’s observation that the spectacle has penetrated the very core of social relations is the most clearly visible (Bottici 2014, 115). We could contend that the proliferation of smart phones with built-in cameras, and the development of social media platforms, constituted the necessary conditions for the emergence of this new phenomenon. Nevertheless, it could also be argued that the latter takes roots in a much deeper historical context wherein the importance and centrality of the image, notably in politics, can be observed throughout the evolution of Western societies. One only has to think to the “aura” of absolute monarchs’ portraits, or the icons of twentieth century totalitarian leaders to realize this.
However, regardless of the origin of such contemporary phenomenon, I want to draw attention to the integration of the selfie as a tool for political ends, and, particularly, to use the emblematic example of Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada. The aim of this paper is thus to highlight the particular socio-economic and political context in which the selfie technique has become a communicative strategy, in order to offer a possible explanation of both the functions and effects of the emergence of this technology in politics. Hence, after introducing Trudeau’s particular political image and usage of the selfie, I will contrast it with the “balance sheet” of his government so far, term by which I mean its actual accomplishments in terms of public policies, legislations, and foreign policy initiatives, with regards to electoral promises. Finally, it will be crucial to point out some of the defining tendencies of our current times, namely globalization, the correlated discourses and practices of governance, and the spectacularization of society and politics, with the aim of situating the practice of the selfie, and of identifying its political functions and most likely effects.
The “Cool Prime Minister”
Firstly, Justin Trudeau embodies the figure of a young, beautiful and charismatic leader. He was elected at the head of the Liberals, a traditional party of the economic and political elite from Ontario and Quebec, after campaigning on a surprisingly progressive platform. Trudeau made all sorts of promises, from reforming the electoral system, to operating a green turn in the economy away from fossil fuels, to giving primacy to indigenous interests in development projects, to decriminalizing marijuana, and so on (Cummings 2016). He also proclaimed himself a feminist and declared, when asked why having a gender-balanced cabinet was important, “because it is 2015” (Ditchburn 2015). These promises are perfectly in line with his political image, which many have depicted as carefully staged, of a progressive, modern and kind-hearted politician bringing a new refreshing outlook to politics. He became notably famous for his willingness to merge with the crowd and take selfies with basically anybody who would ask him; selfies that would later on be widely shared on social media platforms. The time Trudeau went to the Toronto airport to meet the first migrants arriving from Syria, or when he went alone in a metro station of Montreal on a Saturday morning to thank his voters, perfectly exemplified his strategy to meet with “the commons” and offer himself as a selfie-target. Photos and videos from these events went viral and much beyond the Canadian borders. Selfies with Obama had a similar echo and effect: to paint Trudeau as the “cool Prime Minister” and the “selfie-king”, thus presenting an image that combines youth, beauty, the new, progress, modernity, and authenticity (Francis 2015; Brown 2016; Cummings 2016).
However, can his two first years in government sustain this progressive public image? Or differently asked, is this image of Trudeau a reliable representation of his actual politics? It seems indeed legitimate to doubt it. To summarize, many have criticised him for abandoning numerous campaign promises, like the one to reform the electoral system (Reuters 2017). The same can be said for his approval of two pipeline projects, approved without much attention being given to the indigenous tribes’ concerns, and contradicting his environmental stance (The Canadian Press 2016; Minsky 2016). His continuous effort to supply weapons and armed vehicles to Saudi Arabia (Wigglesworth 2017), one of the countries with the worst record on human’s rights, and particularly on women’s rights, and his enthusiasm over the CETA, a typical neoliberal inspired free trade agreement (Cummings 2016), seemed to have seriously undermined his advocacy for women’s rights and his broader pacifist and progressive stance. Nevertheless, the polls indicate a sustained popularity in Canada, only slightly affected by the latest budget (Grenier 2017), while his “charming prince” aura seems to survive and endure in the international media.
The Appearance of Democracy
How should we understand this resort to the selfie and the prevalence and endurance of Trudeau’s progressive political image, which is seemingly at odds with the content of his politics? A look at the international context can reveal a lot. First, the process of globalization has made the world increasingly interdependent and integrated, wherein “events, decisions, and activities in one part of the world can have significant consequences for individuals and communities in opposite parts of the globe” (Bottici 2014, 108). By transferring human organizations and activities to a transcontinental and interregional level, globalization has participated in undermining the effectiveness and the capacity of sovereign states to act. Furthermore, globalization is also accompanied by discourses and practices centered on the idea of governance. This refers to a technique of governing grounded in a series of ‘good practices’ that can overcome the need for active government, and that draws its legitimacy from its putative efficiency. This technique of “governance, as opposed to government, denotes a politics that is not politics, that is, politics without vision” (Bottici 2014, 108). Governance proposes, as an alternative to traditional democratic processes organized around the centralized structure of the state, both global and local networks of communication wherein stakeholders (enterprises, states, NGOs, community groups, etc.) can reach consensus and drives growth forward.
Combined, these two phenomena generated a structural crisis not only for the authority of the sovereign state, but also for the modern model of representative democracy whose site of exercise at the national level has been evacuated or subordinated by transnational and supranational bodies and decision-making processes. “This process of divesting traditional sites of politics of their authority resulted in the perception that politics itself had come to an end. The paradox of a world full of images but deprived of imagination must be understood within this scenario” (Bottici 2014, 111).
At this point, the contemporary spectacularisation of societies and politics – the phenomenon whereby political activity becomes dominated by its image, its representation, its spectacle, rather than by its content – also has to be addressed in order to properly understand the use of the selfie as a communication technique for political purposes. In other words, the function of politics become overruled and guided by the needs of the theatre that stages it, and the deriving requirement to entertain. Understanding how the spectacle has incorporated politics is essential to situate the practice of the selfie within its dynamic.
This spectacularisation came about with two important changes in the production of images. A quantitative change arose with the explosion in the diffusion of images, and in the exposure of people to them, thanks notably to the media revolution and the spread of internet. The electoral circus instantiates a good example of this tendency. We are bombarded with so many images, that spectacle comes to prevail over content. This overabundance of images then needs to be selected by the mainstream media, who operate this task guided by the rules of audience, and the necessity to entertain. The dramatized electoral battles portrayed on TV thus conceals the problematic gap that separates political options defended by official candidates and those excluded from the media arena. Following Debord in Society of the Spectacle (1967) and Rousseau in Letter on the spectacle (1758) before him, we can understand that the spectacle has multiple undesirable effects in the realm of politics. First, staging a spectacle creates a distancing effect between what is represented and the viewers. Moreover, a theatrical representation, by its intrinsic propensity to dramatized or caricature, generate systematic distortion of authentic, lived experiences. Finally, the spectacle fosters an attitude characterised by passivity rather than proactivity (Bottici 2014, 111–13).
In parallel, a qualitative change occurred with the virtualization of the image, which disconnected it from its roots in time and space (Bottici 2014, 111–19). Indeed, with the development of computer technologies and the spread of virtual images it has brought, images have become not only reproducible but modifiable. One only has to think of Photoshop and the modeling and marketing industry to get an idea of the phenomena. If the mechanical reproduction of arts had already initiate a rupture between works of arts and their connection to their time and place of conception (Benjamin 2010), the qualitative shift of our time with regards to the virtualization of the image has consecrated this fracture. Images have not only lost their authenticity, they have become characterized by an ontological indeterminacy between what belongs to the real and the unreal. This confluence between the society of the spectacle and the reality of facts have rendered the escape of the spectacle even more challenging and problematic (Bottici 2014, 118–20).
The field of politics did not remain unaffected by such processes. Indeed, democratic politics have become inseparable with the industrial production of carefully planned images and slogans, what Newman called the “mass marketing of politics” (Newman 1999). By behaving according to the expected appeal and reception of their images, politicians and communication experts contributed to a theatrical turn in politics. Thus, as evoked earlier, elections become a spectacle subordinated to the requirement to entertain. In our globalized context, and when combined with the practices of governance, this spectacularisation of democratic processes serves to conceal the fact that citizens’ choices are increasingly meaningless. Indeed, on the one side, many interesting alternatives are excluded from the election circus. On the other hand, the effective sites of power have been displaced beyond the nation-state. The electoral spectacle thus occludes the transformation of citizens into passive spectators and consumers of political decisions, and consequently keeps them blind to the fact that they have lost the possibility to be authors of their collective destiny (Bottici 2014, 111–13).
Going one step further, Cornelius Castoriadis contends that in becoming permanent in modernity, the idea that representation is the core to democracy has produced a “political mystification”. Indeed, the moment when representation becomes irrevocable and permanent marks the end of the possibilities for citizens to take decisions on their own, and the beginning of their political alienation. Hence, the function of the spectacle in electoral processes aims to conceal this state of affairs (Castoriadis 1976).
The Added Value of the Selfie
How does the selfie practice fits in this new political environment? On one side, the selfie allows not only satisfies the fans and partisans who desire the pictures, it also allows for an increased exposure of the politician’s image, notably on social media, where it is often free of the detailed critiques inherent to the mainstream press coverage. On the other side, posing for selfies and taking selfies of oneself both aim to captivate the attention and entertain. It brings to the political a spectacle similar to the one brought by TV reality programs to the entertainment TV industry. It supposedly renders the image more authentic, more real, more human, and less staged or carefully managed. Consequently, it makes a politician appears to be “one of us”, since he accepts to play the game and participate in the activity we usually share with friends and family. It enables the population, the commons, to identify with a “real person”, and not only with the politician often dehumanized and highly criticized by the press and by pressure groups. The selfie centers the attention on the person and personality of the politician, rather than on the legislations and decrees adopted, and the policies pursued by his party. Furthermore, being a recent phenomenon, the selfie is very much associated with youth and the millennial generation, who are arguably the main practitioners of this technique. The selfies can thus convey this aura of youth, novelty, modernity and freshness, very central to the political image Trudeau has worked to develop.
Understood in this way, the selfie fits nicely in the spectacularisation of politics, as it pulls the attention of citizens towards the personality of the leader, his private life, and his public appearances. It renders him human and “modern”, and diverts attention away from the properly political activity of the party that sustains him and offers him as a mascot to the public. As in the case of Justin Trudeau, the effects of the selfie in politics are thus inseparable with the effects of a broader spectacularisation of politics that focus on the personal figure of the leader. Moreover, the effects of such tendencies are undoubtedly depoliticizing. In the case of Trudeau, it does appear that the progressive and modern image he worked hard to project is misleading and masks a much more conservative politics. In addition, despite his broken promises and the controversial policies of his government, his popularity in the polls has been barely affected, and the positive coverage of the international press lives on. In sum, it seems very likely that this centrality of the image, and its multiplication ad nauseam, makes us forget not only that the political spectacle has transformed us in passive electors, but also that politics is not just a theater, and that representatives of the people must be held accountable base on what they do, and not on what they look like.
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