M Sanger

Mirrors are dangerous things. They routinely blur not only the lines between subject and object, but also inside and outside, self and other, immanent and manifest. If we accept the collapse between object and subject as being the emergence of fetishes and/or hybrids then the danger of the mirror is obvious. Along with fire, lightning, the ocean, the volcano – the mirror is an object that acts of its own accord. The action of the mirror is one of creation – the reflection is a reality that exists only within the mirror and is fashioned out of its actions. This paper will explore the ways in which the mirror acts, how those actions create and destroy alliances, and the broader network of relations dependent upon these alliances.

But first we must look closer at the mirror (and look is all we can do, more on this later) – are we speaking of a single entity, an amalgamation of forces, or some essence or ability when we address the mirror?

Standing with a towel wrapped around our waist, toothbrush in hand – we address the mirror as a single entity, that of our own reflection. But as a material thing, are mirrors individuated entities? Can we recognize one mirror within a group? Can we only recognize it for virtue of its frame? De-framed and standing naked before us will we recognize our daily morning acquaintance or will it become hidden and lost amongst its brethren?

We are straying dangerously close to saying that the mirror is at essence only an essence. Without a secondary framing agent our companion looses individuality and appears to revert to its true nature as nothing more than an ability, a purchase, a flat plane in a world of three dimensional things. Obviously, we must take Bjonar Olsen’s (Olsen 2003))cavalier attitude and attempt to “defend” the mirror from this fate through the tracing of our sensual experience with this entity opposite of us.

Our sensory experience with the mirror is above all, and perhaps to the exclusion of all other senses, one of vision. The tyranny of sight has been discussed as a defining quality of modernity (see (Lefebvre 1991) that arose at about the same time (the early to mid-1700’s) that mirrors became readily accessible items for the masses rather than expensive playthings of the wealthy (see (Melchior-Bonnet 2002) for a history of mirrors). Are the two related? The daily alliance between mirror and woman, mirror and man – could this not be the groundwork for a fabulously powerful alliance between self, vision, and reflection with the mirror as integral member of the cohesive group? Was it this alliance, along with the one between person and written word that banished the other senses to the outskirts of power? I will return to this question later in this paper in an attempt to trace out the mirror’s ability to form powerful alliances and the effect of those alliances on a broader network of relations. But first, the visual nature of mirrors must be drawn out and the subsequent difficulties detailed.

Along with the written word, photographs, and paintings, mirrors are one of the few things that are approachable, or encounterable, only through sight or vision. Vision will play a key constructive role later in this paper – but the mirror’s subservience to vision also makes it extremely difficult to talk about using traditional “material” vocabulary. Largely textual and semiotic terms such as symbol, sign, manifest, replicate, display, contemplate, and meaning are all deeply connected with mirrors and attempting to divorce the two appears difficult, if not impossible. The semiotic or symbolic aspect of the mirror has been heavily utilized by numerous researchers, but perhaps none so much as Jacques Lacan. Lacan (Lacan 2007) suggests that there is a “mirror stage” in child development in which babies first constitute their Ego through the identification of their reflection as a symbol of themselves. According to Lacan, this initial understanding of the mirror’s reflection as a symbol of self provides the base for all symbolic understanding. This symbolic approach is obviously an injustice to the materialistic project, so how do we offer another alternative?

Simply stating that vision is a material encounter as particles are either emitted or received by the eye is a tempting way out of this difficult position. Indeed, myths about the mirror – such as Perseus and the Medusa – suggest such a solution. Nonetheless, I find this solution to be shallow and unsatisfactory largely because it does not explain the relation between the thing viewed, the thing viewing, and the thing imagined. While we are obviously coming close to the realm of signs and symbols this paper attempts to take the materiality project seriously by testing its applicability to a thing – the mirror – that appears to be discussable in only non-material terms. As such, this paper will use terms like reflection, conceived and perceived things, and hidden and manifest characteristics while attempting to stay true to the materialist project and take things seriously. A return to asking what mirrors do, what are their actions may move us in the right direction.

Before examining the actions taken by the mirror I first ask, where does the mirror perform these actions? Mirrors, as locatable things, are slippery. One does not look at a mirror – one looks into the mirror. Rather than being present immediately in front of us – there is something deeper within the mirror. Stories like “Through the Looking Glass” (Carroll 1871) reflect the mirror’s ability to be located in multiple places at the same time. In this way, the mirror is a point of a travel from one location to another.

But this ability to travel is also dangerous as the points that the mirror connects are not always of the same quality. While one point may be the physical realm of our bathroom, the other is a place far more foreign. The mirror opens a portal to other times and places allowing scrying and fortune telling. The mirror creates passageways between life and death as spirits can be both released and caught within. So while the viewer can locate one side of the mirror – right in front of them – the other side maybe more distant, even unknown.

Examining the location of the mirror has brought us to a discussion of what mirrors do. While mirrors can be portal-like – this is more of a by-product of their slippery locational nature. This is not what they do – what mirrors do is reflect.

The mirrors ability to reflect is a creative practice in which a duplicate that is the same, yet different – a doppelganger – of the mirror’s collaborator is made visible. The details of this action and the actants involved are intricate, varied, and paradoxical. The precise nature of the doppelganger is the first difficult question.

Whether this doppelganger is made manifest or created out of thin air is unclear to the collaborator. This is one of the ways in which the mirror is dangerous – does it simply reflect, is it no more than an intermediary, or does it choose what to show and create of its own accord? The collaborator’s anxiety and fear is rooted in their inability to answer this question because the mirror chooses whether to faithfully reflect or to mediate the appearance of the doppelganger. But how do mirrors mediate? In what ways do they alter the doppelganger so that it is a less faithful reflection of the collaborator?

Paradoxically, the mirror may provide a less faithful reflection by creating a more accurate doppelganger. Despite the general conceit that mirrors only operate on surfaces, reflection, in both a perceived and conceived manner, allows access to information otherwise not visible on the surface of the material. In this manner, the doppelganger may have manifest characteristics that are hidden and invisible within the collaborator. Hidden virtues and vices are brought to the surface of the doppelganger through the mediation of the mirror. Our Western mythology is filled with examples of the mirror acting in such a way; the vampire’s true nature made visible, the man with the hidden guilt sees his crimes in his countenance, the mirror shows the inner beauty hidden under ugly skin. Mirrors also create doppelgangers that are twisted versions of the collaborators. Versions that do not uncover, but rather distort. The fun mirror of the circus is an obvious example.

While there is always concern about the accuracy of the doppelganger – the real power of the mirror is when it accurately reflects its collaborator. It is in this scenario where we find the alliance building (as per (Latour 2005) between collaborator, mirror, and doppelganger to be the strongest. But what is the nature of this alliance? How, and why, is it formed?

Mirrors obviously reflect, but so do people – we reflect on problems, on difficult lines in our books, on meanings of unknown words. But more than anything, we reflect on ourselves. To reflect on ourselves we create a mental image of ourselves – but as all non-material things, this image is fleeting. The mirror provides a doppelganger that is relatively stable and constant with which we engage in reflection. With the risk of appearing reductionistic, the act of reflecting in an encounter with both form and content of the reflection or doppelganger.

We consider our physical aspects as we inspect the face and body of the doppelganger. While the doppelganger may show us beauty or may show us a less comely appearance – it is the doppelganger that we think of when we think of ourselves. The doppelganger is the reflection of our form – our material nature. It would be simple to underestimate this point, to suggest that a reflection of our physical form is no more than a narcissistic event would significantly reduce this important event to a symbolic action. It is through our forms, our bodies, our material nature that we enter into and reside within the realm of things. Our form or perhaps more accurately, our conception of our form, circumscribes our ability to enter into alliances and the nature of those relations. The proscriptive and constrictive nature of our form, as conceived, perceived, and lived, is dramatic and should not be underestimated.

Likewise, the doppelganger in the mirror is also the point at which we reflect upon our motives and desires, our actions and our thoughts. In other words – in our content, if such a rough division between content and form is allowed. How often have we “looked into the mirror” to search and question ourselves? When we reflect upon the content of our minds and hearts do we not call upon the doppelganger provided by the mirror – either in our imagination or through a material encounter with the reflection? The collapse between material and imaginary reflection was understood by both Socrates and Freud who suggested the use of mirrors to cause the distraught to look within themselves for the cure.

While form and content have been provided above as a dualism – and are usually divided as such in philosophy – the mirror paradoxically relies on and negates this division. The doppelganger is itself only a surface – it appears to have no content. However, it is a reflection that compounds the form and content of the collaborator into a single plane. This collapse of form and content into a single plane is integral to the collaborator’s ability to self-identify with the doppelganger. As an entity with a perceived notion of having both form and content, the collaborator would find it difficult to identity – to form a strong alliance – with a thing that reflected only a single aspect of itself. While a thing that reflects only the form – perhaps a photograph – or only the content – perhaps a journal entry – would have the ability to enter into an alliance with the collaborator, could it be as strong as the one offered by the mirror which contains both form and content?

Self identification is at the heart of the triadic relationship between mirror, collaborator, and doppelganger – with out it the mirror is more akin to a television screen filled with unknown actors or a window through which a familiar scene is played out. Animals that pass the “mirror test”, such as elephants, magpies, and many primates, are said to have a comprehension of “self hood” that other animals do not. Does the mirror cease to be a mirror within these relations as its defining characteristic – reflection – is misunderstood?

Rather than becoming mired in a circular argument regarding the possible relational and subjective definition of what a mirror is – it may be more beneficial to instead return to the more material discussion of the alliances built by the mirror. Obviously, the alliances built between an animal that does not recognize its reflection and the mirror is different than the one between a person, the doppelganger, and the mirror. I argue that the primary difference is that the latter alliance is potentially far more powerful in that it can expand beyond the triad.

We have already touched on the alliance built between the triad and vision, suggesting that the force behind this alliance expanded beyond the individual level and incorporated a much larger web of alliances. In historical terms, this expansion to a larger web is described as a paradigm shift in which vision became the primary source of information while the other senses were ignored, belittled, or marginalized. While there were certainly multiple shifting relations, including increased access to the written word, the mirror also played a part.

As access to mirrors became easier and less expensive in the mid-1700’s ((Melchior-Bonnet 2002), mirrors quickly became a staple embellishment in nearly every Western household. With ubiquity both in presence and encounter the mirror entered into relations with enormous numbers of people on a daily, if not more often, occurrence. These relations were based on a single sense – sight. As stated above, it is through their relation with the doppelganger, as mediated by the mirror, that the collaborators reflects upon and envisions themselves. This relation is primarily one of information gathering for the collaborator. Information based on their body, its relation to the world around it, and its place within a larger sphere of relations with other people. It is in this last relation that the mirror’s alliance becomes far more expansive than the singular reflection upon the physical and mental nature of the individual.

While the collaborator/mirror/doppelganger alliance leads to the creation of a self-identity based on vision, the relation continues to expand to incorporate other triadic alliances. The relation between their “self” – as made visible in the doppelganger – and other people becomes largely dependent on sight as this is the nature of selfhood for the collaborator. Conceptions of beauty, success, sexuality, power, and weakness enter into tight relations and alliances with sight based on self identification with a visually dominated sense of self. Can we ask ourselves what success sounds like – what power tastes like – what beauty feels like? Answers to these questions, while feasible, pale in comparison to when we ask what such things look like. A picture is worth a thousand words because vision is the currency in which we encounter ourselves, and therefore the world around us.

What we find as we follow the relations of the mirror, is that people become dependent upon their alliance with the mirror for information about their identities, and this identity is itself a standard of examination and a unit of worth that is basis of relations to the surrounding world. Above all, these relations are based on sight to the reduction, if not exclusion, of all other senses. While the mirror certainly played a part in the historical trajectory of sight it was not alone. Vision is a busy alliance builder and is closely related to other things – locomotion, perspective, distance, reading, capitalism to name a few. I suggest in this paper how vision and self identity also built an alliance through their relation with the mirror.

Rene Magritte, Portrait of Edward James

Carroll, L. (1871). Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, Adamant Media Corporation.
Lacan, J. (2007). Écrits: the first complete edition in English, WW Norton & Co Inc.
Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: an introduction to actor-network-theory, Oxford University Press, USA.
Lefebvre, H. (1991). The Production of Space, Blackwell.
Melchior-Bonnet, S. (2002). The mirror: a history, Routledge.
Olsen, B. (2003). “Material culture after text: re-membering things.” Norwegian Archaeological Review 36(2): 87-104.


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