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“They’re often nostalgic images because that’s what they remind us of: the momentary reprieve from drudgery.”

Interview with writer, photographer, and blogger Matt Colquhoun

by Endre Cserna

Matt Colquhoun is a writer, blogger and photographer based in the UK. They are recognized for their contributions to the work of Mark Fisher, most notably, in their debut book, Egress which came out in 2020 and explored themes of community and grief following their late lecturer’s passing. Additionally, they have transcribed and edited Fisher's Postcapitalist Desire lectures and have contributed numerous essays to reissues and translations of his works. Matt Colquhoun’s new book Narcissus in Bloom: An Alternative History of the Selfie was recently published on Repeater Books and presents an alternative interpretation of the selfie, positioning it as a reflection of broader political discontent and a desire for self-transformation, rather than solely a postmodern pathology. 

They are the host of the radio show New Tenderness and you can read their blog, Xenogothic here.

Can you share some insights into your academic and professional background? How did you become interested in cultural studies, philosophy, and most importantly photography?

Photography came first, for sure. I have been interested in photography from quite an early age. My grandmother – who is nearly 90 years old now – has always taken photographs and has reams of photo albums documenting every single decade she's been alive. So, I grew up around photographs in that sense and love taking them. I guess that's where my academic career started, in a way, if you can call it that. I did an undergraduate degree in Photography at the University of Wales, Newport, and graduated a decade ago now.

I also had a lot of questions and a lot of discomfort regarding how photography could be used or what sort of professional expectations were around it. I think a lot of the photography that I liked at that time was still seen as kind of unprofessional or uninteresting – which, I guess, is more commonly talked about now – like vernacular photography or even things that are just a bit more experimental. But I didn't know how to articulate or talk about these questions, so I pursued my master’s degree in Contemporary Art Theory at Goldsmiths in 2017. Then, I changed completely and left photography behind to become a writer, and I wrote a book about my late lecturer, Mark Fisher. Now I am just one year into a Ph.D. in Philosophy in Newcastle.

So, going from photography to philosophy feels like quite a bit of a drift. It has definitely made for an unconventional academic career. I don't know what I am at this point. But I guess I do things around culture for sure, and that's always been my intention, I suppose. I only came to philosophy to try and better understand and talk about culture. It just feels strange that these things are so separate. Culture and its different intersections – how photography relates to philosophy, how music relates to art theory – have always been my overall interest.

Your previous work explores themes such as late capitalism and modern melancholy, which I feel like somewhat naturally leads to the topic of narcissism. Could you walk us through the intellectual process that led you to explore the phenomenon of the selfie and ultimately write your new book?

I suppose the new book came out of the realisation that I had unfinished business with photography. I pursued it for three years, trying to make it a profession, but without much success. However, when it came to writing about other topics, I felt there was a lot I still wanted to say about photography and my own journey with it. As an undergraduate photography student, I noticed a common theme among my peers and me – projects that revolved around self-portraits and exploring various social issues. I also observed that such projects were often cynically received, dismissed as self-centred and narcissistic.

After moving away from that world, I wrote my first book, Egress, which reflected on my experiences as a master's student at Goldsmiths, around the time of Mark Fisher's passing. The book was written in the first person but aimed to dissolve the focus on the self into a broader community perspective. Unfortunately, some misunderstood the intention and labelled it as self-centred and narcissistic, which frustrated me. So, I decided to address this issue in my new book.

The book delves into how we frequently label things as narcissistic without fully understanding the complexity of narcissism. It's not just a dead end; it's a process of self-exploration that often leads to a sense of discontent and eventually expands into a quest for connection and solidarity with others. This natural and crucial political process applies not only to the self but also to building strong bonds among individuals by sharing personal experiences, seeing their resonances. I have this experience. 

So, photography provided the best way to deal with this question and express what I still wanted to say about photography, having thought about it for over a decade. How to talk about this strange way of perceiving narcissism? The obvious way was to go to the selfie.

Matt Colquhoun, Daffodils, Newcastle upon Tyne, 2022.

Early in the work, you mention the presence of multiple narcissisms beneath the cultural surface. Could you provide further elaboration on this concept?

I guess I returned to that towards the end of the book too, and it's something that Jacques Derrida mentions quite explicitly, but also enigmatically when he says, there isn't one narcissism, there are multiple narcissisms. “Even what we call non-narcissism is but a general and more hospitable form of narcissism.” I think what that means in the simplest terms really is that it's an invitation to just rethink narcissism in general. It's something that I found early on in just going back to Freud and what Freud says about narcissism. Not even in the sense that Freud's an authority on it; his own thoughts on narcissism changed throughout all his writings, but you can argue that no different version of narcissism that he puts forward is kind of more or less valid than the other. So, there is this kind of pathological narcissism, which is maybe what we generally associate the term with. It’s almost a shorthand for sociopathy, or when the ego becomes trapped within itself, you lose your connection with the outside world, you become wholly focused on the self – which Freud talks about as something that happens when you're in great pain.

Understandably, if you're in pain, it's hard to think about anything else other than your pain. We see this version of narcissism and we deride it as very unattractive. It's a kind of uncorrected personality trait. It's something that we should really, like a bad habit, try to resolve. But then Freud also talks about a far more attractive narcissism that we see in animals and in children. I always think about when people talk about their cats, if people own cats or have cats. I'm allergic, so I can't really go near them, but I get the sentiment where people will say: are you a cat person or are you a dog person? Well, dogs are too needy, they're like babies. I prefer cats. They just do their own thing. They don't care about anything else. They're just cats, and they do that… And Freud kind of pulls up this example. He's like well, yes, cats are narcissists, but we love them for it. Isn't that interesting? And he says the same about children, the way that we interact with small children who don't have the kind of social baggage that adults do – maybe children can be impolite, but they're also funny. They just march through the world doing what they want to do. And yeah, Freud says the same thing, children are also kind of natural narcissists. But the point not to be missed there is that, you know, in those instances, it's a very attractive trait. It's something that we actually love to see. And Freud talked about it in other instances too, where you kind of need that when you fall in love with another person, even. When you can witness someone just being who they are, as if their sort of sense of self is so secure and so stable and untouchable by anything, by this sort of chaos of the outer world. You're likely to fall in love with it. There are other examples that Freud gives too, but these instances really complicate this sort of really negative view of narcissism, because although we only call one thing narcissism in our day-to-day conversations, we can apply it to things that we actually find far more interesting and attractive and desirable in society and people around us. I suppose the book looks at not just how there can be a good kind of narcissism, but how that's demonstrable socially. And photography is a great medium for doing that. Because photography kind of invites that in all kinds of ways.

The structure of your book mirrors some of its central ideas by dividing it into sections titled Birth, Death, and Transformation. What motivated you to adopt this particular structure?

I think it just made sense for the art historical reading. The book starts with a brief introduction, and then it delves back into the Renaissance, a time of rebirth. It is around that time we first come to understand and conceptualise the idea of the individual that we didn't really have before, which leads to this new conception of the self; Rene Descartes’s I think therefore I am. This Cartesian self is a very singular, arguably very narcissistic, way of understanding ourselves.

And so the Renaissance is a time of great change. It's the end of one kind of self and the birth of another one. Going back and looking at that, all that's been written historically about that time and then looking at where we are now, it feels quite similar, at least in terms of how we are coming to understand ourselves in new ways. Over the past few decades, from the end of the 20th century to the beginning of the 21st, we have been experiencing a time of great change again, and yet this change hasn't necessarily been allowed to come about. It's partly Mark Fisher's concept about capitalist realism, it’s easy to imagine the end of the world and the end of capitalism, which more broadly signals this kind of pessimism in everyday life that we're at the end of something where we can't see what's to come, or believe that nothing's to come. 

But I don't think we necessarily have to think that way. My first book on Mark Fisher was coming at that same question from another angle. When everything seems to suggest that you're at the end of something, how do you then find the social strength to transform into something else, to establishing a new kind of community after grief, for instance. Not an end, but a new beginning. The argument for this book is quite similar, though it retracts and looks at things from a far greater historical angle. 

It consider how the birth of photography as a medium – at another time of great social change, which impacts our understanding of the self – is quite well known now for having introduced us to or at least latched onto a certain fear. Most of the writings on photography by Susan Sontag or Roland Barthes are innately melancholic and sad and pessimistic because photography is supposedly that medium that kills things or traps things in amber almost. In their point of view, it makes things static. My book tries to sort of counter that trajectory and say, well yes, there's a lot of writing like this, but it also can reveal to us how much we do change and are changing all the time. 

The book's structure consists of the initial birth of a self-culture, the apparent death of that self, inaugurated by photography, and then the challenges were facing now, which signal more of a transformation than a true death. How this transformation occurs and what we do with it if we acknowledge and embrace it are the questions that I hope will come to mind for the reader.

Hungarian contemporary author & theorist László Földényi wrote two books about Melancholy. One is simply titled Melancholy, the other is Praise of Melancholy. In the latter, published just a few years ago, he writes about the following about Kubrick’s monolith & Dürer’s picture Melencolia I. Thee paragraph follows as:

...the essence of the monolith is exactly the same as Dürer's polyhedron, namely that there is no explanation. When confronted with it, one is struck silent. Just as no reason can be used against melancholy, the effort to interpret the monolith sooner or later becomes a stammer.1

I find it intriguing that a similar phenomenon occurs when attempting to understand our own narcissist tendencies. How do you perceive the relationship between melancholy and narcissism or even melancholy and selfishness?

That's a great image and a great connection; I'd love to read the book, actually. In the Kubrick film, it is more of a recurring motif, for the monolith initially appears to the apes, right? It's this completely unquantifiable object: they don't know what it does, but we know, as the viewer, it's some sort of signalling, not just a kind of alien intelligence or visitation, but also the future, and not just the future of these prehistoric apes, but of our future too. That comes through right to the end of that film, in 2001, where Dave goes into that sort of strange psychedelic realm. I guess the effect of that on him is that his sense of self is completely deconstructed. The end of that film is so melancholic, too, because of the sadness that comes from the fact that Dave has been removed entirely from civilisation (if he wasn't already, being in space)… He’s also kind of transformed. He seems to become this almost God-like figure. He can see things in a new way, and in a way that's wholly beyond human perceptions of life. 

When I discuss Dürer in the book, it's quite similar. Dürer seems to be really aware of himself as this kind of transitory figure. He's part of an older world – one of the last men of an old world and the first man of a new world. That's a strange place to be. It's probably a place where we could all think about Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History. We’ve had this ambiently drilled into us for a long time, that we are at the end of things, or the end of something, the end of history. But then what comes after history? I guess it's that kind of paradox where we can't go on, but we're going to go on anyway. But what does that mean for us? 
How that relates to melancholy, it's something I was thinking about yesterday. A friend of mine, Grafton Tanner, who writes wonderfully about nostalgia, had a book out also on Repeater Books, not too long ago, called The Hours Have Lost Their Clock. At the end of that book, Grafton's talking about grief. He sadly lost his sister-in-law and her husband to a hurricane in 2021, and although he has written quite a few books now on nostalgia and how it's weaponised, how we're told even that nostalgia is narcissistic, he reflects on how, in grief, in pain, nostalgia is surely more understandable. But we reduced it to a static self-reflectivity: you go back into your own history, and you get stuck and preoccupied with it. But Grafton also adds this more positive version of nostalgia and suggests that it isn't necessarily just mournful or full of grief or kind of regretfully stuck in the past, but that we had become nostalgic for lost potentials. We can look back on a time where we felt like we had a lot more opportunity maybe or a lot of potential, and maybe compare that to where we are now. We might look back on childhood as this kind of time of great freedom and experiment and play, and then look back on that from our kind of more boring day-to-day, 9-to-5 workday and the work week, and long for that play and experiment. Grafton sees that, too, as an important political thing, really. How nostalgia can really illuminate how the world that we live in does restrict us, fix us, make us and encourage us to be very specific kinds of self. Even if that doesn't necessarily conjoin or resonate with who we actually think we are underneath all of the structures, the social structures or capitalist structures or whatever else. I think it resonates with my own argument in my book. That kind of self-reflection on who we are and who we have been and who we could be can be melancholic, but melancholy in itself can kick-start us to totally rethink things. I mean, Mark Fisher talks about the same thing too in different terms again. I think Mark was often described as a kind of pessimistic writer. And he would say: No, I'm not pessimistic, but my writing is negative. It's critical, it sort of suggests not that everything is bad, full stop, but says that everything is bad and what can we do to change it? We identify our discontent and our nostalgia and use that as a way to figure out what we actually want and how we can achieve it in the future. I believe narcissism can function in much the same way.

Matt Colquhoun, selfie, 2015.

You explore the selfie, a kind of vernacular photography/ a product of mass imaging, arguing that it makes us more suspicious of capitalism & individualism because it gives capitalism a face (or many faces). Do you think any kind of social progress is possible through becoming aware of this unconscious act?

First, the strange thing about the selfie in relation to capitalism is that I'm not sure the selfie is a direct product of capitalism, but it's a way of dealing with the discontent it produces. Maybe the discontent is the real product, and the selfie is kind of a way of almost wordlessly jousting with that. That's the thing that I think we miss often. There's a step missing. Discontent is the product; the selfie is a symptom of that discontent rather than a direct symptom of companies because that makes itself easy to denounce. Actually, there is this underlying drive to look at ourselves in order to transform ourselves. I think vernacular imagery in general is or can be like that. I mean, what do we think of when we think of vernacular photography or vernacular imagery? 

When I was doing photography quite actively, I'd always find that if I had an idea for a project or wanted to make a zine or something like that, and the only time I'd ever feel like I got somewhere was when I was on holiday. Maybe that's part of travelling to a new place and being inspired by that – but immediately that's seen as less serious. You're just being a tourist. As if that's an unserious, unprofessional thing, which isn't art. These are your holiday snaps. I think there's a step missing there too. Why do we always feel more inspired on holiday? Why is that true of us in general? I think it's a singular experience and it’s because it’s that time of the year when you're free from the territories of work, when your daily routine is completely abandoned and you're living a very different kind of life. There's this other kind of freedom.
Vernacular photography can be a window into that freedom, into these other ways of living and doing things. They're often such nostalgic images because that's what they remind us of: the momentary reprieve from drudgery. That's something I observe in vernacular photography, and I believe there isn't enough discussion about its implications and potentials. We could explore this aspect further (which could have been included in the book). The selfie serves as a useful starting point for reconsidering our relationship with this type of imagery. We often take it for granted, dismissing it as flippant and uninteresting. However, I find it more captivating than many instances of conventional capital-P Photography.

Why did you feel it was necessary to include emotional insights into your personal experiences while writing Narcissus in Bloom in the final section?

This is something that is just important to me in general. With this book, I made a conscious effort not to be too self-centred, considering criticisms of my previous book. There's a general cynicism surrounding these popular kinds of writing, often referred to as auto-fiction or auto-theory. However, I have always loved this style of writing. As a writer, I find it challenging to begin unless I start with my own feelings and experiences and then expand outward. It's like making the personal become impersonal, as Mark Fisher exemplified, discussing his struggles with mental illness to explore broader social issues. Both my first book and the Ph.D. I am currently writing follow this approach. It's been interesting because it deviates from the conventional academic thesis, but I am doing it anyway.

And as a silly final question, when was the last time you took a selfie?

Yesterday, probably about 12 hours ago.

1 Translation by interviewer.

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