Let's not act like selfies and food pics are 21st century phenomena

No, taking a photo of your brunch isn't a "revolutionary" act. Taking a selfie isn't one, either. We've been doing them both for centuries.

Instagram held a press conference today to announce that it was adding a messaging service to its app. That's all. Messaging.

Just to make that clear:

Kevin Systrom is the co-founder of Instagram, and his presentation contained some choice cuts of ludicrous Silico-speak. At one point he literally described the act of taking a photo of one’s brunch as “revolutionary”.

We can only wonder what he makes a painting like this:

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

That's Caravaggio's Still Life with Fruit (1601-1605), a painting of some brunch (or lunch, maybe breakfast). It's food, is the point. The art galleries of the world are filled with boring pictures of food - it's a topic that has sustained artists for centuries. There is nothing new about fixating on food. The animals on the walls of Bhimbetka and Chauvet might even count as food portraits.

Ancient human-like figures, like these ones painted onto rock in the Cederberg region of South Africa, might even be selfies:

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

That's a generous interpretation, I realise, but the self-portrait is one of the defining artistic subjects of human art, throughout the world. There are 141 self portraits in the National Gallery's collection, for example. It makes the response to the Oxford English Dictionary's decision to name "selfie" word of the year utterly baffling - there is nothing new about us documenting ourselves.

Think pieces that talked about the selfie's "screaming narcissim" that "sits at the excess of the ultimate theatricalising of the self" seem to treat something rather mundane as something that's - here's that word again - "revolutionary". Smartphones and digital cameras have made it easier to take photos of ourselves and our foods. They've also made it easier to take pictures of landscapes, but you don't see that getting parodied or turned into a Time cover story about the self-obsession of a generation. The difference between now and the Renaissance is the barrier to entry for those who couldn't afford paint and canvas.

The question it feels more worth asking here is this: why do we use new technologies the same as our old ones? Why is that we keep picturing the same things, again and again, but faster and faster? When is a technology amplifying something in our society, rather than actually changing it? And will every technology always end up, inevitably, a thing for porn?

It rather feels that focusing on the method, instead of the motive, misses the point a lot of the time.

Rembrandt pouting for a selfie, c.1630. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear