A bit of light academia on society's latest narcissistic trend, equal parts philosophical exploration and art criticism.
Stavans (Latin American and Latino Culture/Amherst Coll.; Borges, the Jew, 2016, etc.) glosses what could evolve into an entire semester class on the selfie, as quick mentions of Benjamin, Warhol, and Spinoza conjure a syllabus of supplementary material. The author offers pointed remarks on the nature of art, photography, and identity, but he is more comfortable exploring than he is solidifying any definitive ideas. His charming, wandering narrative proves that with the right sort of intellectual wheelhouse, something as innocuous as the selfie can be approached with academic rigor. Unfortunately, the text is marred by Stavans’ devotion to ADÁL, a Puerto Rican artist who specializes in surrealist autoportraiture. A large portfolio of ADÁL’s work is wedged into the center of the book, resulting in an abrupt tonal shift, and Stavans attempts to elevate ADÁL’s oeuvre with a bubbling but unconvincing passion. Without knowledge of its cultural subtext, the photography is silly at its best (a Magritte-style portrait where a banana hovers in front of ADÁL’s face) and flippant at its worst (ADÁL igniting a fart or wearing a condom on his nose). This divisive work will distract readers from Stavans’ thesis. In one chapter, a visit to ADÁL’s studio initiates an interview with the artist about his practice. Later in the book, a chapter on “felfies” (a word from the Urban Dictionary referring to classic photos that have been altered to look like selfies) lacks the focus of a previous section on Rembrandt and his recurring self-portraits. The author’s personal interests often get in the way of his conceptual discoveries.
Bright but uneven, inspiring but occasionally misguided, the book is a curious intellectual snapshot with a finger over the lens: a broad cultural landscape pulled unnecessarily into portraiture.