The Self-Self Transaction by Sarah Hughes

January 2014

In 1944 the Bretton Woods Agreement tied the foreign currency exchange rates to the value of gold, and in 1971 the Nixon Shock saw the adoption of a series of economic measures that canceled this direct convertibility, making way for unfixed exchange rates and free floating currencies. This came into full effect in March 1973 when most global financial systems removed their ties to the intrinsic value of a physical quantity through the dissolution of the gold standard.

This dematerialisation of capital led, paradoxically, to a rethinking of materialism, shifting it from production to symbol, and paved the way for our current conceptions of commodity, exchange, and relativism. At the close of 2013, forty years after the Smithsonian Agreement saw the introduction of a floating financial system, one could suggest that the acme of the capitalist economic system is the upsurge of the smartphone.

At the end of 2013 it is estimated that 7 in 10 people in the UK have a smartphone, and those without become an increasingly alienated observer of a new kind individuality and private ownership. The dichotomy of private and social has been combined into one asocial activity – one of taking the private moment into the public arena and performing either as the autonomous user in a crowd or via a social network.

The selfie, synonymous with the smartphone and social networking, was the Oxford Dictionaries “Word of 2013”, with research suggesting its frequency in the English language had increased by 17,000% in the preceding twelve months. Digital polling suggests that 30% of all photos taken by young people are self-portrait photographs, and the headline grabbing moment that Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, British Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama took a selfie at Nelson Mandela’s memorial marked a monumental moment, not only in photographic culture, but citizen journalism, content consumption and the insatiable need to document the present.

For all the human faces being shared via smartphones, a vacant, impersonal and faceless parody of the individual is being perpetuated. The grammatically barren and frustratingly short correspondence that stems from social media sites, text messaging services and Twitter is an inherent characteristic of the smartphone and presents a fun-sized version of a human being whose life is mediated through a kind of superficial, hyper version on a self. This hyper-self is a product of capitalism, the person who can ‘be the best they can be’ by offering their lives up as snapshots – as symbolic gestures. What is symbolised is not so much a person, but a set of social values and narcissistic relations, a lifestyle, and lifestyles can be bought. More specifically lifestyles can be designed and branded, and are increasingly mass-produced for the individual. A quasi-bespoke lifestyle can be paradoxically unique and uniform as the ‘i-phone generation’ style themselves though apps and are able to continuously update themselves with the latest brand/symbol equity, the perfect complement to the £.

Through smartphones and social media sites the individual is able to present themselves as an image. Some of this self-image is a consequence of the online interface, but as the consumers increasingly express themselves in abridged sentences and acronyms and the time one spends alone is filled by an increasing virtual world of activity, then the image becomes a virtual-reality, one that is so invasive and ever present so as to confuse the definition of actual reality. This ambiguous notion of reality could find parody in the application software (or app) ‘Little Alchemy’ that enables the mixing of virtual chemical elements to create new virtual chemical elements – neither of which have physical properties, so nothing actually happens. Except the phenomena here is that something does happen, it is happening and virtual reality is no longer a thing of science fiction or futurist fantasy but a reality that plays out in a way that bears little relation to what was originally envisaged in the 1980’s.

The Gesamtkuntwerk, originally adopted by the Art Nouveau movement, retooled by the Bauhaus, then refashioned from commodity to symbol throughout the Twentieth Century, has a complex relationship with contemporary consumerism, but current discussion about the fusion of art and life can take account of unintended consequences and misappropriations, where notions of the individual have been institutionalised, capitalised and commodified. Adolf Loos’ late Nineteenth Century attack on the Gesamtkunstwerk as precluding man “from all future living and striving, developing and desiring” could now be interpreted as the commodity stripping the consume of their alterity. The lifestyle, as a forged sense of self, is being torn between the virtual, symbol, real and material.

The autonomous consumer is predicated on a paradigm that blurs art and everyday life and yet the hyper-self being perpetuated is at odds with the ideals of most exponents of what ‘art and everyday life’ once meant, and could continue to mean. The hyper-self is a fiction, but a fiction that is fully functioning in a capitalist system, and as the commodity is gradually being bypassed, the subject being desired by the consumer is self-equity. In a virtual reality the object is made redundant and the ‘self-commodity-self’ transaction is being replaced by the ‘self-self’.


Loos. A, “The Poor Little Rich Man” in Spoken into the Void: Collected Essays 1897-1900, 1982, trans Jane O. Newman and John H. Smith. Cambridge University Press, US

Simon. J, 2010. Neo-Materialism Part 1: Commodity and Exhibition. E-flux Journal #20

Simon. J, 2011. Neo-Materialism Part 2: The UnreadymadeE-flux Journal #23

Sarah Hughes

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