In 2019, a photo of an egg* became – and currently remains – the most ‘liked’ photo on Instagram, smashing the previous record held by Kylie Jenner.
What is it about the egg that speaks to this popularity?
Its message is simple: “Let’s set a world record together and get the most liked post on Instagram. Beating the current world record held by Kylie Jenner (18 million)! We got this 🙌”
We are invited to join a cause: “Let’s set a world record together”.
The cause is simple and yet apparently pointless: to “get the most liked post on Instagram”.
It is a very ordinary egg and a very ordinary photo (the original photographer, Serghei Platanov, is quoted as saying “Egg is just an egg“) yet the choice of image – an egg – suggests potentiality, a power, an energy (life? nourishment?) whose essence is still hidden, unknown, sublime.
In his 1763 treatise Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, Immanuel Kant describes how these two feelings both bring pleasure, “but in different ways … The sublime moves, the beautiful charms”, he says (46-7).
The sight of a mountain whose snow-covered peak rises above the clouds, the description of a raging storm, or Milton’s portrayal of the infernal kingdom, arouse enjoyment but with horror; on the other hand, the sight of flower-strewn meadows, valleys with winding brooks and covered with grazing flocks, the description of Elysium, or Homer’s portrayal of the girdle of Venus, also occasion a pleasant sensation but one that is joyous and smiling…. Tall oaks and lonely shadows in a sacred grove are sublime; flower beds, low hedges and trees trimmed in figures are beautiful. Night is sublime, day is beautiful…. (47)
When I think about the sublime, I always come back to the image in Quentin Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction of the briefcase which the audience can never quite see inside but which, when opened by the characters in the film, emits a golden glow from within. We never do learn what is in the briefcase (gold? money? the essence of life?) but we know from the expressions of awe on the faces of those looking in, that it’s something worth having…
Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan reconceptualises the sublime as jouissance, a pleasure located “in the place of the Other”, which the subject can never access except through fantasy. The “object of desire” (or what Lacan calls the objet petit a) is defined both as the object which the subject fantasizes would satisfy her/his desire and as the object which the subject fantasizes is within him- or herself that would satisfy the desire of the Other. When you look at the posts on Instagram with the most “likes”, those which are not “beautiful” are often defined by something you can’t see – a baby whose face is hidden; a future we can’t know because the person has died or the story suggested by the photo or the announcement hasn’t unfolded yet (an engagement; a new job).
In folklore, fairies and other magical creatures have long served as signifiers of the sublime. Diane Purkiss (2000: 4) says that fairies are imagined to occupy liminal spaces – unmapped terrain between the known and unknown – and to preside over transitional periods of our lives: “birth, childhood and its transitions, adolescence, sexual awakening, pregnancy and childbirth, old age, death”. The sublime in Instagram moves us by appealing not to beauty or achievement, but to potentiality and the vulnerability that comes with this.
*The @world_record_egg instagram feed was created by Londoner Chris Godfrey.
Kant, Immanuel. (1960 ) Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime. Tr. John. T. Goldthwait. University of California Press: Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford.
Purkiss, Diane. (2000) Troublesome Things: A History of Fairies and Fairy Stories. Penguin Books: London.
Tarantino, Quentin (director). (1994) Pulp Fiction.