One of the basic underpinnings of religion, almost any religion, is the worship of something or some deity bigger than oneself, and the overt acknowledgment that the individual worshipper is less than the deity worshipped. Some religions even incorporate that acknowledgment as part of liturgy and/or ritual. Such acknowledgments can also be part of “secular religions,” such as Nazism, Fascism, and Communism.
Today, however, there’s a totally different secular religion on the rise, with many of the old trappings in a new form, which might be called the “New Narcissism,” the elevation and exaltation of the individual, or the “self,” to the point where all other beliefs and deities are secondary.
Exaggeration? Not necessarily. What one believes in is reflected in the altars before which one prostrates oneself. Throughout history the altars of the faithful have either held images of a deity, perhaps accompanied by those of less deity, or no images whatsoever. While images of private individuals have also existed throughout history, those images or sculptures were created for posterity, of for the afterlife, so that others would have something to remember them by… or to allow them to remember themselves as they were. At one point in time, only the wealthy or the powerful could afford such images. Even until very recently, obtaining an image of one’s self required either the cooperation of others or special tools not particularly convenient to use. This tended to restrict the proliferation of self-images.
The combination of the personal communicator/camera/ computer and the internet has changed all that. Using Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and the internet, now each individual has the ability to create themselves as a virtual deity – and tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people are doing just that, with post after post, selfie after selfie, proclaiming their presence, image, and power to the universe [with all three possibly altered for the best effect].
It’s the triumph of “pure” self. One no longer has to accomplish something for this presence and recognition. One can just proclaim it, just the way the prophets of the past proclaimed their deity. And given what positions and in how many ways people have prostrated themselves before their portable communications devices in order to obtain yet another selfie, another image of self, it does seem to resemble old-fashioned religious prostration.
Of course, one major problem with a culture obsessed with self and selfies is that such narcissism effectively means self is bigger than anything, including a deity or a country, and I have to wonder if and when organized religions will see this threat to their deity and belief system.
Another problem is that selfies have to be current; so everyone involved in the selfie culture is continually updating and taking more selfies, almost as if yesterday’s selfie has vanished [which it likely has] and that mere memory of the past and past actions mean nothing. All that counts is the latest moment and selfie. That, in turn, can easily foster an attitude of impermanence, and that attitude makes it hard for a society to build for the future when so many people’s attention is so focused on the present, with little understanding of the past and less interest in building the future… and more in scrambling for the next selfie.
All hail Narcissus, near-forgotten prophet of our multi-mirrored, selfie-dominated present.