A cartoon by the artist Pierre Brignaud was trending on Facebook last month. It depicted a mass of people floating in the open sea. They all have their mobiles out, their arms rising from the water like so many periscopes. All of them are taking selfies. Looming gigantically in the background is a half-submerged Titanic, on its way to watery oblivion in the Atlantic. (http://tinyurl.com/oaek8bq)
Brignaud’s cartoon won an award for black humour. To be sure, its temporal displacement of the selfie mania onto an event of a hundred years ago is extreme; absurd, even. But if it is funny, it’s because it homes in on a fundamental truth.
People compulsively posting selfies even as their world — encapsulated in the mammoth ship — is about to end, is a fair metaphor for the hypnotic allure of digital nirvana that seems to have denizens of a technophilic civilisation in its thrall, even as their world is in danger of sinking, literally, and not just from global warming.
Social psychology apart, the selfie has evolved into a handy technological tool serving various agendas, including the ideological one of building a national consciousness. It is the latest in a long line of technological innovations that have aided the never-ending project of forging a national consciousness.
Take away the modern technologies of communication and administration, and an individual’s sense of national identity would wither away, leaving behind a self that would likely derive social sustenance from lived communitarian relationships rather than abstract symbolisms.
“But nationalism and patriotism, at the core, are grounded in symbolisms. Which is why symbolic postures, gestures, and objects often matter more for sustaining this imagined community we call a ‘nation’ than substantive contributions to the social sphere. ”
In his book, Conspicuous Compassion, the British journalist Patrick West explains how “dramatic public displays” of concern do not help the target of the concern in any way. Instead, it is primarily about “projecting your ego”.
What West says about ‘conspicuous compassion’ is applicable to the displays of conspicuous patriotism that periodically overtakes us, especially on occasions like today. One such symbolic intervention for this Independence Day, aiming for a viral outbreak of conspicuous patriotism, is the #SaluteSelfie hashtag on social media.
Mooted by a telecommunications company — which had announced free Twitter access for a week till August 15 — it is a patriotic campaign that exhorts everyone to “support our armed forces” by taking a #SaluteSelfie (a photo of yourself doing the salute) and either tweeting it or making it your profile picture.
The roster of celebrities who have already ‘supported’ the Indian armed forces by posting their “salute selfies” include Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Anil Kapoor, Saina Nehwal, and Virender Sehwag . Having done so they have shown themselves in public to be patriotic. They have also put others in their network under some social pressure to similarly self-certify their patriotism.
Refuge of the poor
What these “salute selfies” won’t do for sure is to change the lives of the Indian jawans . Yet if the empty patriotic symbolism of #SaluteSelfie is ideologically valuable, it is because it disavows what is common knowledge: for the vast majority of the jawans, the army was not so much a patriotic career choice as the best route out of poverty.
Historically, social elites may have derived prestige from serving in the upper echelons of the military.But in nearly every country with a large standing army the bulk of the fighting forces was drawn from the poor.
This is the reason why countries such as the U.S. and Australia have opened up their armed forces to economic immigrants, drawing them with the promise of citizenship. In this context, the record of the U.S. which has become some sort of a geo-political soul mate and nationalistic role model for influential hawks in India is revealing.
As per the U.S. Department of Defence’s 2008 data, 65,000 immigrants were on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces, comprising 5 per cent of all active-duty personnel. Every year, 8,000 non-citizens enlist. . It is thus understandable that for political elites, who typically have intimate links with domestic capital, patriotism is indispensable.
We can break down the mystifications of selfie patriotism as follows:
|•||A selfie-taker is both the producer and the consumer. In the process of taking a “salute selfie”, one engineers into existence — or performs — a patriotic persona. This patriotic self enjoys value-addition by virtue of being validated by the public gaze of social media. The selfie-taker takes pleasure in consuming this value-added persona, and by tweeting it, enhances her social capital via the opportunistic visibility opened up by the circuits of patriotic circulation.
|•||The #Saluteselfie campaign, by urging individuals “to show their gratitude to the jawans who guard the borders of our nation”, performs an important ideological operation: in the civilian public space of social media, and in peacetime, it mobilises and normalises a militaristic conception of patriotism.
What matters for this brand of patriotism is the territory that needs guarding by the army, not so much the citizens living in that territory, many of whom may be in urgent need of assistance of a non-military kind.
This is why there is no contradiction in a patriotic army being ready to die guarding a territory’s borders, and at the same time, being ready to shoot its own citizens, if ordered to so. This was how the Indian army functioned under the British, and it hasn’t changed with Independence.
In other words, the ‘nation’ of the nationalist ideology is first and foremost, a property (land), not the people. But the real content of nationalism would have limited traction among a populace where the vast majority do not own land — hence the vacuous symbolisms of patriotism.
The “salute selfie” campaign is a clever — but by no means unique — marketing ploy that outsources the mass production, distribution, and consumption of a militaristically patriotic national identity to the citizens themselves, through the so-called sharing economy of the Internet.
There is a double irony at work here. Firstly, the real beneficiaries of this selfie patriotism are the company behind it, the social media brands of the celebrities, and the coercive legitimacy of the nation-state — not the jawans in whose name it is being conducted. Secondly, while such a nationalism might have its uses at a pragmatic level when dealing with other nation-states, to actually believe in it, or to invest one’s identity in it, is elementally dumb, given how national sovereignty is routinely trampled by trans-national finance capital in FDI-begging nations who think nothing of parcelling out chunks of their own land as ‘foreign territories’ (also known as SEZs/EPZs) where their national laws would not apply.
Indeed, it’s interesting how the logic of nationalism rarely figures in the decision-making of financiers. Perhaps, this Independence Day, we could all learn some lessons in patriotism from billionaire investors (many of whom are role models for us already), who are all resolute, high-minded citizens of the world, unimpressed by national boundaries or barriers of any kind. Yet that doesn’t mean you won’t catch them posting a “salute selfie”.