Share me, like me, tweet me, be me: the digital reincarnation of Narcissus

This article was commissioned for Onassis Foundation magazine “AΩ”. See here (Greek Translation). It is reproduced below in its original English version.

NarcissusLike in Byzantium there will always be iconoclasts; the breakers, haters and enemies of images. As then, now and forever: for the iconoclast of every age there is something deeply disturbing in the worship of the human image; he feels that humans ought to be humble, walk the earth with eyes pinned to the ground, and turn their gaze away from images – specially of themselves. For humans are made of spit and dirt. Indulging the senses with an image of a man, or a woman, is an insult to what lies beyond the corporeal, to that superior, finer and immaterial essence that has been known by many holy names throughout history, but nowadays is mostly referred to as “consciousness”.

In our post-religion world the iconoclastic bishops of Constantinople have reincarnated to the social critics of the rampant, near-universal self-adulation of the multitudes posting photos of themselves on social media, to be shared and liked. There must be something deeply wrong with self-worshipping, the contemporary critic  argues. The human race must have reached the apogee of collective moronity, for how can this global congress of nobodies pretend to offer quotidian trivialities that others should like, share, or tweet?

Unfortunately for the iconoclast Narcissus has risen from the graveyard of classical studies and reinvented himself as digital techno-hacker. Thus transformed he has embedded himself in Web 2.0. By becoming a series of command lines he instructs the massive creation and sharing of self-portraits on social media platforms millions times per day. Narcissus’ techno-consciousness copies itself, like a cybernetic virus, every time a smartphone is turned to face its owner and a digital echo of oneself becomes the ultimate affirmation of existence by the sacrosanct act of uploading. Narcissus has finally avenged himself. Realising this, the classically educated iconoclast shakes his head, twists his lips and eruditely reminds us that self-love leads to self-destruction with narrative precision, at least according to Ovid but also Freud. How can an empty image of yourself love you back? How can a sane person worship a simulacrum, and remain sane?

Perhaps we have indeed entered the era of collective insanity and digital homoeroticism. But, if we are, then this is just the beginning. For soon enough, our digital echoes will be given the opportunity to acquire physical bodies. Our obsession with ourselves, so systematically cultivated after decades of psychoanalysis and therapy, will reach its logical conclusion, as robots become more human, and as mindshare is coded in the architecture of human-machine interfaces. So here’s a prophecy from the digital oracle of Delphi: our digital icons will one day escape our newsfeeds and sit on our tables. Our android doppelgängers, genetically or mechanically engineered, will begin like toys for the few, but will quickly evolve to something for everyone, and will become our friends, brothers, sisters, and lovers. Self-destruction, if such should be the fate of a self-obsessed humanity, will manifest symbolically through the sexual union of the cyber and the physical “us”; as Narcissus finally invents and constructs the medium to love himself not only in mind but also in the flesh.

No, I’m a Roman


A soldier of the eastern Roman empire (republic)

I just finished reading “The Byzantine Republic“, a wonderful book by historian Anthony Kaldellis. In the book the author argues that “Byzantium” should be viewed as the continuation of Rome, and indeed that the republican polity of Rome survived in the politics and life of Constantinople as well as the rest of the Eastern Roman Empire, till its very end. This is a thesis that explains many things, including how emperors had to be popular with the people if they wanted to keep their throne (and often their head).

For me, the book offered additional and much-needed elucidation over modern Greek identity, as it was shaped after Greece’s emergence as a state in the middle of the 19th century. As I have argued before, modern Greek national identity is an artefact that was constructed by intellectuals of Greek Enlightenment who, by accepting and adopting the dominant – and rejecting – western narratives about Byzantium, they aimed to dissociate modern Greece from its medieval history and instead root it in the ancient, classical era of Pericles and Demosthenes. In many ways, the tribulations of modern Greece have much to do with the confusion around national identity; as I have also argued in my (much discussed) article for the Washington Post

Last summer  I happened to be in New York and I was told the following anecdotal story, that demonstrates what I mean.

It was 1912, during the First Balkan War , when the Greek army landed on the island of Lesvos and liberated it from the Ottomans. As the army advanced inside the island taking positions a Greek soldier noticed a young local boy who stood by and looked at the Greek soldiers full of curiosity.  So the soldier went over to the boy asked him why he was looking at the soldiers like that.

“Because I was told that the Greeks were coming”, said the boy in perfect Greek, “and I wanted to see how you Greeks look like”.

“But you are a Greek too”, said the soldier.

“No”, said the boy. “I’m a Roman”.