The gestural assembling of the selfie

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The research presented in this thesis is the result of looking at the mirror of the selfie more closely while paying particular attention to gesture.

The high-resolution touchscreen and front-facing camera of the contemporary smartphone create a mirror that allows individuals to see themselves in their device when it is held before them, creating an interface. This mirror ultimately resulted in a proliferation of digital, vernacular self-portraits commonly referred to as “selfies”. This thesis returns to the mirror of the selfie as a site of investigation.

It is posited that a myth of invisibility haunts this mirror which results in it being seen but simultaneously ignored, or, otherwise, present but not apparent. This can be evidenced in a demonstrable gap within the literature on the selfie. Although the selfie emerged as a popular mode of self-portrait photography between the years 2010 and 2015, and became an object of intense, widespread discussion, critical enquiry, and academic investigation, there is a paucity of commentaries on the role the mirror played in how various selfie components—high-resolution touchscreen, front-facing camera, and individual grasping the device—came to be organised. There is an abundance of literature on the motivations of the individual, the role of the mobile device, and the role of photography in terms of the selfie: all rigorously examined. But the mirror did not undergo the same critical and concentrated interrogation the other components did.
This thesis shows how something so present has become so invisible to so many individuals. It does so by demonstrating that the invisibility of this mirror is a result of gesture. Gesture is not defined as a symbolic movement of the body, rather a disposition of the individual through which body and device become organised. The invisibility of the mirror is shown to be created at the level of gesture, and, through their gesturing, an individual organises themselves within a volume of relations that requires this invisibility to operate. In terms of the vocabulary of critical theory, the gesture of the selfie results in a desubjectification in which the body becomes docile, yet the individual still believes themselves to be free. The unique contribution of this thesis is not positing that desubjectification occurs but demonstrating the process of this desubjectification.

Practically, this research evidences this through a cross-disciplinary reading of literature around the selfie; a reading grounded in critical theory and cultural studies. The first methodological consideration is that the mirror is an apparatus [dispositif]: apparatus not meaning technology (in this instance, the mirror), but the technology and its incumbent social, cultural, and political extensities. Following this, the mirror and the resultant selfie is examined as a site of gesture and these gestures are read in terms of phenomenologies of the body. The work conducted in terms of the apparatus and the work conducted in terms of phenomenology are synthesised through theories of assemblage and affect. Resultantly, the selfie is shown to be a gestural assemblage in which knowledges of the mirror, the device, the body, and the individual are all consolidated. These findings will provide an appropriate background to build further research into the selfie, mobile cultures, and, more generally, researchers working in apparatus and assemblage theories in the broader context of cultural studies.
Date of Award2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Coventry University
SupervisorDamian Sutton (Supervisor), Miriam De Rosa (Supervisor) & Bianca Wright (Supervisor)

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