Between the Scream and the Smile: Examining the Ontology of the Horror Selfie

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Image source: selfiesatseriousplaces.tumblr.com

In an essay entitled the “The Selfie and the World” Pramod Nayar states:

The selfie, this essay argues, is a means of social interaction. It is a mediated presentation of the self that then interfaces, digitally but no less materially, with the world. The selfie is an act of agency that allows the individual to interrupt or punctuate the flow of information and conversation around and about her/himself even as s/he participates in this flow. (Nayar 79)

He then goes on enlist the various features associated with the vogue of selfies such as the urge to script ourselves as subjects, the primacy of the body even in the digital age, self-image as a tool of “empowered exhibitionism” that may even create a culture of counter-surveillance or endow one with a positive body-image or as a modality of being within a technological medium of continuous spectacles, visibility and mutability[i]. What the article does not interrogate is the extent to which the vogue for the selfies caters to a pervasive postmodern culture where the image reigns supreme with a hyperreal aura that alluringly invites us to a fragmented dehistoricised world marked by what Fredric Jameson would call the “waning of affect”. Let me illustrate what I mean with the help of the recent fad for “horror selfies” in Kolkata, as pointed out in the earlier article “Skeletons Out of Our Closet”, in the wake of the so called skeleton-saga revolving around the shocking event of horror and intrigue involving the residents of 3, Robinson Street, now a veritable tourist spot in the itinerary of the voyeuristic Bengali citizen.

What sort of empowered exhibitionism is performed by taking a picture of oneself with a smiling face while standing in front of a house that has been the seat of unexpected perversion, horror and trauma? This is neither simple indifference or insensitivity nor a desperate quest for 15 seconds of fame among the tweeple or other digizens. Instead the dissonance between the facial expression of the selfie takers and the grim reality associated with the events that had taken place in the house in the background point perhaps to a dissociation between the signifier and the signified which constitutes the age of the hyperreal in Baudrillard’s terms, where individuals are becoming willing inhabitants of a simulacra in which horror fails to frighten, death fails to sadden and the grotesque fails to disgust. What all of this points to, is a digital economy of images where ethics and affect are equally absent. Since individuals as subjects are themselves becoming pre-coded by one trend or another (from clothes, to food, to how you spend time with your beloved to how you organize your marriage and so on), the entire psychopathology of the individual, within which such concerns and resultant emotions of anxiety could have been located, disappears as well. The selfie, therefore, though prompted by a “passion for the real”, far from being a mode of fashioning one’s own subjectivity becomes another medium through which the depthless superificiality of postmodern culture, which Jameson illustrates through paintings of Andy Warhol, comes to the foreground. It welcomes us to what Žižek would call the ‘Desert of the Real’ where we encounter a “‘derealization’ of the horror” (Žižek 13)[ii].

Incidentally, this waning of affect is nothing new in the domain of Indian culture in general. In the famous Bollywood film, 3 Idiots, starring Aamir Khan, the poverty endured by the family members of the character played by Sharman Joshi was consistently portrayed through black and white shots that represented the present through a loop into the 1950s and 60s and the black and white films of those ages. In the process the debilitating poverty of the family, far from being a source of pathos, became a source of almost universal laughter and the laughter was made possible by the dehistoricising mechanism of the film which relegated concerns regarding vegetable prices to an apparently archaic past, thus unmooring the film from the lived reality of inflation, starvation deaths and the growing gulf between rich and poor in the ‘shining India’ of the 21st century. Instead there only remains the amply marketable tricks of what Jameson would call “gratuitous frivolity” which again reappears through the horror-selfies doing the rounds. It is in this context that Jameson further adds,

As for expression and feelings or emotions, the liberation, in contemporary society, from the older anomie of the centered subject may also mean not merely a liberation from anxiety but a liberation from every other kind of feeling as well, since there is no longer a self present to do the feeling. This is not to say that the cultural products of the postmodern era are utterly devoid of feeling, but rather that such feelings — which it may be better and more accurate, following J.-F. Lyotard, to call “intensities” — are now free-floating and impersonal and tend to be dominated by a peculiar kind of euphoria…[iii]

 It is the same euphoria that again reveals itself through other online phenomena such as funeral selfies, duckfaces in front of the Vietnam War Memorial and even a Chernobyl Selfie. The latest in this line was an Auschwitz Selfie taken by an American teenager who could be seen grinning from ear to ear while standing in front of the erstwhile Nazi prisons inside the notorious concentration camp. In all of these cases the insurmountable trauma and horror associated with these events for millions of people became blithely substituted by the carefree euphThe_Screamoria of the selfie which instantly emptied those sites and memorials of their significances within the confines of the pictures that immediately went viral as well. In case of the horror selfies surrounding the incidents of Robinson Street in Kolkata even the temporal distance applicable in case of the earlier events becomes negated and a site of appalling disgust becomes an object of voyeuristic curiosity devoid of ethical or affective paradigms.

Now, more than ever, it is ethically as well as aesthetically imperative to recuperate the anxiety and agony of either Edward Much’s iconic ‘Scream’ or “The horror! The horror!” experienced by Conrad’s Kurtz as such works of art help us recover the depth of affects and sensibilities that the postmodern regime of images has dispensed with. Otherwise we too would soon be flapping in the wind, selfies filled with straw.

– Abin Chakraborty


[i] Pramod Nayar, “The Selfie and the World”, Seminar 663 (November 2014), 79-81.

[ii] Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, (London: Verso, 2002).

[iii] Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, (Durham: Duke UP, 1991).

Starbutts and the Body Double: Class Politics in Fetishism

There are a number of websites available on the Internet (like, Mr. Skin) that dole out movie clippings and images consisting exclusively of celebrity nudity. Not technically pornographic in content, these sites cater to a certain section of the audience, the type that Laura Mulvey would probably describe as the Possessive Spectator, and have become almost a part of celebrity culture worldwide. It has become a steady practice to extract nude sequences from films to feed the voyeuristic consumption habits of the masses. The problem being, though not pornographic in content, such extratextual and decontextualized dissemination of movie clippings unhinges them from the film text, making them readily consumable goods – pornographic in intent. And they are all hyperlinked in such a fashion that it automanufactures more voyeurism.

Although such practices might make purists squirm in disdain, it still may appear gentlemanly compared to the more recent phenomenon of ‘controversial’ movie clips going viral over the Internet and the social platforms. It did not take publicists and/or moviemakers much time to find out how the social media can be used as a publicity platform free of cost, and certain movie clips consisting nudity started to make regular appearances before the release of the films. A very good example would be the nude clip that surfaced before the release of the film Chatrak (2011), depicting a cunnilingus performed on Paoli Dam by Anubrata. In the past weeks, a similar controversy has appeared concerning Radhika Apte’s frontal nude scene in an Anurag Kashyap short film made for an international audience (aside: note how international doesn’t mean national anymore). While such scandals generate much debate over who might be behind these acts, it is an undeniable fact that this curious nexus of social platforms and news media in making viral videos does wonders in generating awareness about the film in question.

Lena Heady’s naked walk of shame in the fifth season of Game of Thrones had already created much murmur in media circles even before the season had started to air. Now that the season is over, much is being said about the season finale of the HBO TV series that aired June 14, 2015. The series has always been under critical and popular debate owing to its convoluted storyline, an almost obsessive-compulsive deployment of plot twists and shocks, rampant nudity, and overtly realistic brutality (as opposed to the CGI gore of, say, Spartacus). The brief June 15 article in the New York Post titled ‘Game of Thrones’ used a body double for that big Cercei scene was widely shared and circulated in the social media circle, more specifically, Facebook, and hence the following few observations:

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Whenever the media points out things like these, it raises the obvious question of how male actors are seldom under scrutiny for using stunt doubles in action scenes, whereas the media and audience regularly obsess over the usage of body doubles in nude scenes of the female actors. Body doubles for nude scenes should be no news to anyone, it being a part of a gag in one episode of F.R.I.E.N.D.S. where Joey gets the job of playing Al Pacino’s butt, or in Notting Hill (1999), where Julia Roberts explains the nudity clauses in acting contracts to Hugh Grant, and various other examples within and without film and media. But even then, whenever someone points out the use of a body double in some nude sequence, they sound almost hurt and betrayed; as if the entirety of the filmmaking technique is not based on some deception or the other. This strangeness of attitude then points to a problem a bit more complex than a simple male/female commodification binary; it points out how even objectified bodies are subject to class stratifications. The knowledge that the nudity on display is not of the person we think it to be, but someone else’s—a subordinate in the craft-chain, a non-star—immediately acts as a devaluer of the fetish quotient.

In this particular sequence we see a twofold failure of fetishism in action – internal and external to the narrative. On one hand the audience’s fetishism over actor Lena Heady’s naked body is decimated by the news of the body double, on the other the actual sequence of the ‘walk of shame’ in the episode is brutalised and overexposed by design to an extent where it unsettles all audience to the point that any scope of sexualisation of the body is annihilated. The reaction of the audience and Cercei at the end of the walk is likely to be the same – shocked, shaken, wide-legged, and drained.

Fetishism is, in its essence, an inculcated class issue. We fetishize objects we are taught to fetishize. Thus, we do not fetishize the whore, but we fetishize the housewife, the stepmother, the actor, the star, or in this case, the queen. The High Sparrow knows this fact, and so he offers the ultimate fetish-object, the queen, her highness, as meat to hungry dogs. In fact, the citizens, all gathered around to witness the spectacle, first gasp, and then jeer and howl at Cercei. The ritual of humiliation becomes an act of passive-rape. During her parade, a woman flashes her privates and shouts, “I’ve had half as many cocks as the queen.” Soon after, one of the thronging citizens comes forward, disrobes himself and shouts, “I’m a Lannister, suck me off.” All selfhoods become relational to the image of class and power.

Running for almost ten minutes, the sequence is as excruciatingly brutal as it is lengthy. But this stretched out, never-ending sequence is designed to have an unsettling effect even on the most avid of fetishisers. Cercei is paraded down the street—with a few guards guarding her, and a priestess ringing a bell and chanting “shame” behind her—almost like a rare zoo animal put out on display before it is again put back in the cage, in this case, the Red Keep. The duality of simultaneous accessibility and inaccessibility of the naked body of Cercei is what ignites the unrest in people, and their almost taunted, jilted sexual desires find a vent in the brutal abuse hurled towards her.

Like children pelt zoo monkeys with stones, the commoners are permitted to verbally abuse her, flash her, throw rotten food, and even spit on her, but they are not allowed to touch her. The question is, even when Cercei Lannister is shorn, stripped, and paraded down the city streets, is she still even close to being a commoner? The answer is, of course not. Class is intrinsically connected with history; the inevitability of history is the inevitability of class. Cercei can be humiliated as chosen by the people who at the point of time have power over her, but even then, she cannot be declassed. Even in her parade of shame, Cercei still has her cocoon of aristocracy wrapped around her; class is a clothing that cannot be stripped.

– Souraj Dutta

Skeletons Out of Our Closet

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Image source: youtube.com

In William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the two buffoons Stephano and Trinculo present us with a curious conundrum. Exposed for the first time to the half man and half fish Caliban, their initial fear and abhorrence give way to a curiosity which they want to channelize into a business venture. Disregarding all practical considerations as to how they might escape from the island and return to their native Italy, they are busy hatching a plan as to what they would do, with the strange creature they have encountered in the island. Their master-plan, if one might use a colloquial term, is to take back this marvel of nature back to “civilized” society and present it/him to the European society as a “wonder” of the “new” world and earn money. Behind the apparent preposterous nature of this plan and the laughter that it elicited from the audience, lay a deeply rooted racist European worldview. It is not surprising therefore that this scene becomes almost prophetic, in the sense that in the late 19th and the early 20th century, there existed in Europe, “human zoos”, where African, Caribbean men/women/ children were showcased as exhibits for the rational/ educated/ civilized European audience as almost freaks of Nature. A voyeurism of a different kind, it seems to survive and outlive the days of the colonial past and may in a way said to have made an entry into the lives of the average Kolkatan in the last week or so.

     But before we step into the problematic world of the human desire to create comfortable binaries of the rational/ irrational, civilized/ barbaric and social/ anti-social, for people of the sociological and literary background it is imperative that we acknowledge the existence of the one in the other. Conrad’s narrative of the journey into the heart of darkness was much more than a physical expedition and much has been said about Marlow’s adventure since its publication over a century ago. But the point remained, that once the shackles of the societal structure and expectation came off, MAN found him/herself capable of unthought/ unheard- of cruelty. Just to make a point, during riots or during occupation of one country by another, the perpetrators of violence and apparent justice have time and again brought out the darkness and primitive selves which lie hidden and buried under the cloak of acceptable societal behaviour and norms. Or for that matter, sexual violence in Prisoner of War camps, or just physical mutilation all point at the existence of a “self” whose presence we would want and choose to deny in our everyday social roles. But how does one react to the emergence of the dark side of the moon in the society around us, a society so obsessed with social media that it seems not to blink twice before sensationalizing a sensitive issue like what has been termed the “return of Hitchcock’s Psycho” by the Bengali media over the apparently macabre findings in Robinson Street.

       As a citizen living in the city and reading the proliferation of reports, opinions and conspiracy theories doing the rounds, one is appalled by the lack of maturity and sensitivity at the handling of this incident. If the average Bengali mind is perplexed at what might have gone on in the apartment where the skeletons have been recovered, at the exact nature of the relationship that existed between its family members, whether incestual or supernatural, and how this could flourish in a well educated family belonging to the economically creamy layer ( as if that disqualified financially stable and educated people from indulging in societally disapproved acts) it would still be less of a bafflement and cause for worry and anger. But what has been as terrible and shocking as the incident, if not more, is the nature of our reaction to it.

   In an age where Selfies, “Likes”, Instagram are the buzzwords, the crime/ death scene has almost become a pilgrimage for people with a camera/ smart-phone in hand. Instashare, Instauploding/ hashtagged pictures are swarming the social media and one cannot but wonder at the new age Stephano and Trinculos who are not after money, but something more sinister. A selfie with the Robinson Street apartment in the background has become the ticket to acquiring a vicarious pleasure in instant virtual celebrity-hood. The number of “Likes” that such pictures and images have generated not only acts as an ego-massager but somehow also ends up exposing the hollowness of our present generation, underlining the lack of responsibility of the people in charge of reporting this incident. This insensitivity towards the acknowledgement of the uncanny has made the family a household name, and the day is not far when the name of Partha Dey would enter the colloquial jargon replacing mad/insane/strange/pervert and the site of the discovery of the remnants of the family members a tourist attraction. The skeleton is out of the cupboard, and it is a very scare sight, for the skeletons look so much like us.

– Sayan Aich Bhowmick

Prologue to a Hope

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One of the pleasures of being an academic teaching literature is that one gets to cultivate the lifelong love for literature as one’s professional responsibility. However, the constraints, quandaries and conundrums of academic life in various institutions are such that savouring the multidimensional wonders of literature often takes a backseat as staff-room discussions are dominated less by intellectual curiosity and more by CAS, NAAC, DA, transfer, promotion, attendance calculation and such other quasi-mythical monstrosities that are, however, entirely unavoidable.

It is equally alarming to note that even the budding minds of students and research scholars are also often mired in poison ivies of their own as teaching becomes replaced (and not supplemented) by PowerPoint presentations, online file-sharing, video-games etc., semesters keep curbing the time to thoroughly read a text, term papers become an excuse for innovative plagiarisation and the thirst for greater knowledge becomes replaced by a new-marks-ism where the student with the highest supply of butter and oil takes all.

Such a scenario leaves very little room for those wonderfully illuminating conversations of our college/university days when horizons were not limited by either syllabi or term papers or expected questions and answers or even research papers and doctoral dissertations. During my first year in Presidency College I was once asked by an elder relative, himself a teacher of English literature, whether I was frequenting the library or not. I replied that I was and then hesitantly added that much of what I read seemed to fly over my head. He chuckled and replied: “That’s normal. What matters are the glimmers of light, which would pass into the mind”. Whether my mind did receive those rays or remained as benighted as ever is debatable. But the attempt to absorb knowledge which apparently had no immediate utility did not stop. And there is a value in such intellectual sustenance which remains outside the purview of degrees, marks and API scores. A fact that few seem to understand.

Ironically, only a few decades ago, long before the institutionalised vogue of interdisciplinarity had come into being, students in Coffee House, Basanta Cabin or the canteen in Presidency College (that now-buried fountain of our past) would recurrently regale themselves with such sustenance and embark on varied intellectual journeys with the insouciant belief that the world was their oyster. And it is with the same weltenschaung that students in various colleges would flock to lecture theatres of other colleges and other departments to understand and assimilate theories, ideas and information that would never assail them in any university examinations. And poetry, films or theatre were objects of interest and avid participation for people who had no ties with departments of literature or performing arts. This online platform is dedicated to the cultivation and proliferation of such intellectual sustenance which may pique the interest, stir the intellect and incite the imagination. The promise of a generation lies in its audacity of hope. Let this be a site for such audacious explorations. Perhaps, through such endeavours we too, like Plato’s doomed Philosopher-King, can escape to our own desired sunshine.