Narcissus in Bloom

But we may already sense that there is another “narcissism” here — or, indeed, multiple narcissisms — lurking beneath the surface of our shallow reflections. Throughout recorded history, both flower and man have been associated with far more than vanity alone. Behind our popular understanding of the term is the narcissism of self-transformation, rebirth and self-overcoming. And yet, despite being routinely dramatized and depicted in cultures all around the world, any alternative reading of narcissism today is drowned out by a cottage industry of self-help books and works of folk-psychology — which have long had a place in bookstores but arguably became truly inescapable over the last decade, following the advent of social media — not to mention the casual symptomologies paraded around by the media, which screams ad nauseum that narcissism is a plague we’re all at risk of catching (if we haven’t already). Move over, coronavirus! But to dismiss narcissism as modernity’s fatal flaw, heralding the decline of civilisation, is to ignore the libidinal motor driving its spread — that is, our constant yearning for the new (be it new selves or new worlds).

Narcissus in Bloom: An Alternative History of the Selfie

We are living through an epidemic of narcissism, or so we are told. Technology has made us self-obsessed, and this tendency may well be the death of us. But is our self-concern not warranted? Rather than an excess of vanity, what if we regard ourselves so frequently and with such intensity because we do not know who we are or what we are becoming?

By returning to the original myth of Narcissus, and the flower from which he takes his name, this book presents an alternative reading of narcissism and the selfie, arguing against a moralising subgenre of cultural criticism that suggests our self-obsession will be our downfall.

That may be so. But what if the selfie was not a symbol of stasis but an expression of a desire for transformation? And what might we become after we have rid ourselves of the cloistered self-images forced upon us by contemporary capitalism?

Beginning in the Renaissance with Albrecht Dürer, travelling via Rembrandt and Caravaggio to photographers and celebrities like Lee Friedlander and Hervé Guibert, Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, Narcissus in Bloom explores the rise of the self-portrait through cultures high and low, arguing that it is a sense of subjective indeterminacy that has disturbed us for centuries.

277 pages | August 2023 | £10.99 | Published by Repeater Books

Pre-order from: Amazon UK | Amazon US | Pages of Hackney | Waterstones | Barnes & Noble and more.

Spanish and Italian translations are forthcoming in 2024 and 2025, respectively.

Reviews, Essays & Endorsements

… a masterful exploration of the interplay between digital culture, capitalism, and the individual’s quest for self-fulfillment in the modern age … Fundamentally, this isn’t a book about selfies. It’s about our collective attempt to reinvent ourselves again and again. Impressive and hopeful, I cannot recommend it enough.


Self-portraits have existed before the dawn of photography but in 2006 Britney Spears and Paris Hilton took the first selfie. Britney and Paris, alienated, uncertain, questioning (“how do I look?”) peered into the mirrored gaze of Paris and Britney, captured, objectified, beautiful (“that’s hot”). Like a subatomic particle collision in a subterranean accelerator, the explosion was instantaneous but produced an infinitely rich, confusing litany of data. If that data could be language it would be Narcissus in Bloom: An Alternative History of the Selfie. TLDR: Don’t blame the selfie, blame the material conditions. Become a flower and/or die trying.

— Leah Hennessey in The Whitney Review of New Writing, issue 001.

Narcissus in Bloom is a fascinating alternative genealogy of our modern obsession with the photographic self-image. With characteristic heart and sensibility, Colquhoun examines the philosophical and art historical roots of narcissism. Mining his emancipatory potential and rescuing him from his liberal individualist sequestering, Narcissus is recast as the fraught, forlorn and fractured face of contemporary subjectivity. To bridge the impossible gap between how we see ourselves and how others see us, this is the paradoxical and panoptical status of the self portrait today that Colquhoun rivetingly gets to grips with. You’ll never look at a selfie the same way again.

— Isabel Millar, author of The Psychoanalysis of Artificial Intelligence.

In this beautiful and surprising book, Matt Colquhoun offers a new history of the selfie. Moving past the stale denunciations of generational narcissism, this book delves back into history, covering portraiture and photography from Albrecht Dürer to Derek Jarman, all the way to Britney Spears. Rather than see the selfie as a sign of self-absorption, this engrossing volume understands the selfie as expressing a longing for a kind of self-transformation. Elegantly and stylishly written, this book is the best kind of cultural criticism, sweeping away the worn-out cliches of the familiar for the freshness and wonder of the truly new.

— Jon Greenaway, author of Capitalism: A Horror Story

In Matt Colquhoun we have one of our era’s most interesting and incisive new thinkers. Narcissus in Bloom is a real achievement. On one hand it marks a return to a now lost tradition: big-picture cultural theorising that speaks to and illuminates present-day anxieties in unexpected ways, spoken in the vernacular of contemporary popular culture, of the likes of Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall and more. But it’s actually more exciting than that. Because what Matt develops here is a new kind of writing, one that involves a refashioning of the self, a refashioning explored through a breath-taking range of literature, art, photography and high theory through the figure of Narcissus. And they draw on a wonderful range of allies here, from Virginia Woolf to Derek Jarman, Maurice Blanchot to Hervé Guibert. 

This will be a useful book to anyone perturbed by our societies’ relationship to the image and to the self-image. Is this an age of narcissism? Matt’s approach is compelling. Often narcissism is considered a kind of disorder, superficial and vain. But what’s at stake here is something quite different. As they argue, Narcissus matters because it creates a space for the individual to fashion and control their own image in a way that evades existing zones of power or delibidinising, stifled old ways of being. What are the conditions for exploring a radically new subjectivity? How — individually and collectively — can we begin to conceive and imagine new ways of being? In this vigorous, inventive and fascinating book, Matt beats the bounds of a new kind of theoretical and creative practice.

— Dan Taylor, author of Spinoza and the Politics of Freedom

Relating one’s emotional self to those around us is at the very heart of Colquhoun’s queer critical and political project. 

Egress is one of my favourite books of recent years; a text that dragged me through a painful mental health crisis and proved academically inspirational. Narcissus in Bloom is similarly ambitious, moving, inspirational and loving, echoing its predecessor in its themes and insights, but it is also the fruit of personal growth.

Colquhoun’s blossoming as a writer, thinker and person is exhibited in their less explicit visibility but continuing implicit presence within the new book, which evolves beyond the autoethnographic grounding of Egress into a more purposeful and universal work driven by the author’s passion for photography and their gift for combining and expanding on complex and diverse philosophical, scholarly and artistic reference points.

— Dr. Michael Waugh, Lecturer in Media, Communication & Cultural Studies at Newcastle University