Graphics and Augustine: the Lust to be Dominated

Newscasters have had a field day with the take up of the “#BringBackOurGirls” online campaign, which seeks the release of almost 300 girls held hostage by the Nigerian terrorist organisation boko haram. The campaign has fast veered off in several different directions and has sometimes gone off topic entirely, thanks to the photographic alteration program Photoshop.

The most recent example of this involves the antics of lawyer and social commentator, Ann Coulter, who made an attempt to attack Michelle Obama (who was bearing a placard with the “#BringBackOurGirls” motif), posing in a similar fashion with a placard which read “#bringbackourcountry”. The Huffington Post reported that this attempt seriously backfired on Coulter, with Photoshopped versions of her picture circulated on the internet as a meme with the placard bearing all manner of comical and self-deprecating remarks.

The above episode demonstrates the high degree of slippage with photographs in the age of the internet. Thanks to the increasing digitisation of photography and the democratisation of photographic alteration software, photographs no longer have the integrity that they once enjoyed, with things being altered, included or removed from the original, often without the knowledge or consent of the subject in the photo. This technically facilitated slippage, however, bears out an Augustinian maxim in his City of God: in acting out on one’s desire to dominate others, they do so without knowing that they are being dominated by others.
Whilst the Coulter episode exemplifies an unintended domination, there are other examples in pop culture where this technologically facilitated slippage from a desire to empower oneself through self-expression slides easily into a willing subordination to rule and manipulation by others. This is borne out most graphically in posters of Youtube makeup celebrity, Michelle Phan that are currently circulating in trains and billboards in cities in the United States.
One of Phan’s current manifestations is a photoshopped montage of herself, standing beside the “You” component of the YouTube logo. Whilst this is meant to emphasise the site as a launchpad for confident self-assertion of the unified subject, this is almost immediately qualified with the slogan “help me make up who we want to be”. In a single graphic move, one sees rather eloquently the Augustinian love of self giving way to the desire for domination over others but ultimately slipping into the desire to become dominated by others.
As an aside, it is interesting that the Augustinian motif of multiplicity also plays itself out in this graphic, where the confident assertion of “You” as a united subject also, in the lust to dominate others, quickly slides into a dispersion of that subject into the “we” of the slogan.
This twofold negation of self can be seen in Phan’s signature makeup line, EM-Costmetics. The nomenclature is meant to reflect the subjectivity of “Me”, as claimed by Phan herself. The result, however, is its very reversal, from a unified “Me” to a dispersed multiplicity of “Em”, namely the colloquial shorthand of “Them”.
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