Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Selfies, the disappearance of the natural world and nihilism

I don’t like shopping malls; they remind me of the weakness of our species when it comes to commodities that they ‘must have’, according to the spurious ethos of the prevailing economic system. Hence, when the woman in my life asked me to accompany her to that monstrosity known as the Baywest mall, outside the city, yesterday, to fetch a DVD that was only available at a music and video shop there, I agreed reluctantly. I had never been there in the time it has existed, and was quite proud that I had avoided this monument to greed, which had been built on, of all places, a wetland, which has a very important function in ecosystems.

As it turned out, it proved to be a very creative morning for me. As we walked in my eye was caught by a huge, poster-sized advertisement for some or other smartphone, and I was struck by the exemplary manner in which it graphically encapsulates the passive nihilism of our capitalism-ridden era. I immediately sat down on a bench and wrote this piece, while my partner went her way.

I have written on the varieties of nihilism distinguished by Friedrich Nietzsche in the 19th century here before (see ); suffice it to say, therefore, that passive nihilism is the awareness that nothing has intrinsic value (any longer), combined with the simultaneous inability, or refusal, to accept it, followed by turning to anaesthetising practices in order to forget the absence of values.
In Nietzsche’s time passive nihilism assumed the shape of seeing the shocking abyss of non-value and non-meaning, and promptly ‘running back into the arms of the priests’ in order to avoid this terrible truth. Today, people run into the arms of Mammon, the god of money. So what does this have to do with advertisement for a smartphone? The latter graphically embodies such contemporary passive nihilism, as I shall try and show.

The advertisement in question is a photograph showing a group of children on a beach, the sea behind them, with their backs turned to it, huddling together so that the one taking the selfie (with the smartphone being advertised) can capture them all with one shot, the ocean’s crashing waves behind them. Here, in one brand-advertising image-configuration, the essence of the passive nihilism suffusing our time is paradigmatically captured.

First, it is significant that the ocean is behind them, their backs turned to it both literally and figuratively – it is, in other words, a scene emblematically representing the current alienation between humanity and nature. Second, the smartphone as mnemo-technical device (which might just as well have been a digital camera, tablet or IPad) concretises the kind of ‘enjoyment’ at stake here: it is mediated enjoyment. What used to be the sensory enjoyment of the sand, sunshine and waves on the beach, has been reduced to that of images on a screen, which, for better or worse, are the product of technical artifice.

In itself this is neither good nor bad, axiologically speaking (i.e. relating to values); as Bernard Stiegler persuasively argues, we are technical beings (Homo and Gyna technologicus) through and through. The difference, condensed in the composite image under scrutiny, is that the latter is symptomatic of a reductive tendency, globally, to replace the variegated spectrum of human experience with only one kind of privileged experience – that which is technically mediated, in the process denuding the experiential world of its intrinsic value.

In the present instance the experience of a visit to the beach has been reduced to a ‘selfie’, in its turn made possible by the smartphone which is touted as the indispensable condition of an enjoyable visit to the beach. Behind this reductive iconic metonymy of the mnemo-technical ‘capture’ of social life – the destruction of savoir-vivre (knowledge of how to live your life), precisely – lurks the Midas-touch of capital, which strives to transmute everything into proverbial gold, but at the cost of life.

To possess such a smartphone, one has to have access to capital, and quite a lot of it, too. Which means that you have to enter the consumerist loop: you have to ‘earn’ money by working in the capitalist economy, and gain acceptance, not only by the ‘system’, but also by your peers, by being a ‘good consumer’ – spending money on consumer goods like the latest smartphone, car, and clothes, having a bank account, and most important, proving your consumerist virtue by demonstrating your willingness and ability to service debt.

All these consumerist-capitalist implications of the ‘selfie on the beach’ are not incidental, of course; they cut to the cold heart of the matter. The technical capture of people’s attention (here, children’s; ‘catch them young!’) serves the objective of keeping the wheels of the consumer economy turning. In the process the natural world – always culturally mediated, to be sure – becomes a technically mediated world, where the instrinsic value of a beach, the ocean, flowers, mountains, streams, wildlife, is replicated (and concomitantly obliterated) by its mediating substitute, which, in its turn, functions as a metonymy (part for whole) of capital. Needless to stress, the latter is ultimately monodimensional, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding.

On the topic of wildlife, a friend’s tale of his experience during a visit to the Addo National Elephant Park near Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape is emblematic of what Stiegler has identified as the capture of people’s attention by means of the capital-serving mnemo-technical devices that function as a conduit for the reduction of the sensory diversity of the world to its ostensibly mediating counterpart (which turns out to be nothing more than a lure of capital).

The friend in question had taken visitors from the Netherlands to see elephant and other wild animals – including rhinoceros, lion, kudu and buffalo – while driving through the extensive area comprising the park. To his astonishment, when they encountered a sizeable herd of elephant, his visitors proved more interested in looking at the images of these majestic creatures on the viewing screens of their digital camera and video-camera than in the animals themselves, which were quite close to their vehicle. Even when he tried to draw their attention to a particularly striking bull among the rest of the herd, they merely looked up long enough to be able to locate the animal, and then proceeded to marvel at its image framed by the viewing screens of their cameras.

It is not the case that all photography has (and has always had) such a reductive effect regarding the experiential value of the visible world, of course. When photographs serve the purpose of directing one’s attention back to the extant world – natural or cultural, and whether in memory or in actuality – the latter is left intact, instead of being replaced by its technically replicated counterpart. When we travel throughout South Africa or to other countries, often to climb foreign mountains, my partner takes photographs of beautiful landscapes, rivers, mountains and animals. These photographs are reminders, when we look at them afterwards, of the beauty and variegatedness of the world, instead of being fetishes that are increasingly replacing the world, to the point where they rekindle the desire in us to revisit these places.

Put differently, as long as photographs are a record, reminders and a celebration of the visible world, its indispensable axiological role in human life remains intact. But when techno-mediated images of the world become what Baudrillard calls ‘hyper-reality’, that takes the place of the visible world and makes it disappear, as it were, the very (malleable) foundation of value in human experience is eroded, and nihilism prevails.

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