An appalling-looking man enters and looks at himself in a mirror.
“Why do you look at yourself in the glass, since the
sight of yourreflection can only be painful to you?”
The appalling-looking man replies: “Sir, according to
the immortal principles of ’89, all men are equal before
the law; therefore I have the right to look at myself in the
glass; with pleasure or pain, that is an entirely personal matter.”
In respect to common sense, I was certainly right;
but from the point of view of the law, he was not wrong.
— Charles Baudelaire -“The Mirror,”
The mirror is a recurrent figure in metalanguages of media since antiquity, for philosophers and critics regularly sought recourse to analogies of this reflective surface in their attempts to elucidate the “nature” of one or another medium. [i] In the tenth book of The Republic, Socrates introduces this figure as he undertakes to explain the “true nature” of poetry: “This way [of creating a poem] is not difficult. It can be quickly managed anywhere on earth – most quickly if you are prepared to carry a mirror with you wherever you go. Quickly you will produce the sun and the things of heaven; quickly the earth; quickly yourself; quickly all the animals, plants, contrivances, and every other object we just mentioned.” [ii] Leonardo also appeals to a mirror in his treatise on painting. “The painter’s mind,” he writes, “should be like a mirror, which transforms itself into the color of the thing it has as its object, and is filled with as many likenesses as there are things placed before it. Therefore, painter, … you can [only] be good if you are … a versatile master in reproducing through your art all the kinds of forms that nature produces – which you will not know how to do if you do not see and represent them in your mind.” [iii]
The reflective surface of the mirror ensured for these writers that painting and poetry would cohere with their respective realities. For Plato, the use of the mirror enabled poetry to represent those artificial and worldly objects that he and his contemporaries viewed as mere shadows of their prototypes, or simulacra [see entry on Simulation/Simulacra, (2)] of the Idea. Leonardo, on the other hand, lived in a world in which universal truths were secured by mimesis (see Mimesis), or fidelity to something deemed to be “real” and “natural.” This explains why he exhorts painters to cultivate their minds to function as mirrors. Despite these differences, both of these writers invoke the figure of the mirror as they thought media should reflect, however imperfectly, something they considered transcendental and transhistorical: unattainable Ideas and “nature.” In short, the dicta they espouse tacitly uphold the notion that media are cultural practices that should dovetail with and reify a historically contingent order of things.
Raymond Williams notes that discussions involving the term ‘medium’ generally treat it as an activity by an “apparently autonomous object or force.” [iv] This abstraction, he argues, obfuscates the situations in which a work is begun or in which it is received by suppressing the full sense of practice, which he defines as the work on a material for a specific purpose within certain necessary social conditions. [v] The figure of mirror can be viewed as one of those autonomous objects or forces that elides the ideological and social functions of various media as it evokes abstract concepts such as “nature” or the Idea. The power of this trope to enact such erasures is neatly illustrated in Antonio Manetti’s biographical account of Fillipo Brunellesci’s invention of the optical box. Not only did the mirror in this mediating apparatus enable a perspectival mode of representation to gain the status of “real” or “natural”; it also forced spectators to assume a particular subject position that was ideologically overdetermined, or for our purposes, mediated. [See perspective.]
The first work (see figure [vi]) in which the Florentine Renaissance architect utilized perspective was in a small panel about half a braccio square onto which he painted a picture of the church of San Giovanni of Florence [vii]. Brunellesci drilled a hole as “small as a lentil” at the center of the painted side of the panel, or at that point of view of the church that would be directly opposite to the eye of the spectator if she were standing at the specific point where the image was rendered. This hole opened out in a conical form to the size of a “ducat” on the obverse side. In order to behold the panel, the spectator would have to place one of her eyes against this larger opening and shade her other eye with one hand. Meanwhile, she would have to hold a flat mirror in front of the opposite side of the panel in such a way that the painted image was reflected in it. Manetti also emphasizes that the distance from the mirror to the hole near the beholder’s uncovered eye had to be in a given proportion to the distance between the church and the point where Brunellesci stood while painting the image. If it were not, the effect of the perspective would be distorted and the image would be unintelligible. [viii]
According to Manetti, Brunellesci manufactured this elaborate apparatus in order to “prevent the spectator from falling into error in choosing his [sic] viewpoint.” [ix] Interestingly, this forced mediation of an image through a mirror that simultaneously determined the position of the beholder’s body resonates with Louis Althusser’s famous definition of ideology. He writes, “we observe that the structure of all ideology, interpellating individuals as subjects in the name of a Unique and Absolute Subject, is speculary, i.e. a mirror-structure, and doubly speculary: this mirror duplication is constitutive of ideology, and ensures its functioning.” [x] In other words, ideologies are arranged around a centrally positioned Absolute Subject, or what Baudelaire’s protagonist calls an “immortal principle,” that transforms all individuals into socially determined subjects in a double-mirror connection that subordinates them to an invisible yet pervasive law. [xi]
This double-mirror mediation is sustained by institutions and forms Althusser calls Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs), or mechanisms that use methods of punishment, expulsion and selection in order to discipline “not only the shepherds, but also their flocks.” [xii] Examples of ISAs include the communications ISA, or the press, radio and television, and the cultural ISA, or literature, the arts and sports. [xiii] Constantly bombarded with these media and forced to identify with their imagetexts (see entry on image and text), subjects, according to Althusser, develop an imaginary relation with the real relations in which they live. This imaginary relation, one Althusser refers to as misrecognition. [xiv] is ubiquitous and inescapable. Similar to Baudelaire’s appalling-looking man, Althusser believes that “all men [sic] are equal before the law,” but he would also contend that the media produced by the ISAs have duped Baudelaire’s protagonist into believing that the pain of his subjection is actually an inalienable right secured by the democratic revolution of 1789.
Althusser’s model assumes that ideologies interpellate their subjects by directly communicating with them through media propagated by the ISAs. Communication, however, is always interrupted by “noise” as it travels from its sources to its receivers. This is succinctly outlined in Umberto Eco’s elementary communicational model. [xv] Moreover, our exemplum, Brunellesci’s panel (see figure), is incomplete; instead of painting a sky on the panel, Brunellesci affixed a plaque of burnished silver so that the actual air and moving clouds “might” be cast onto the surface of the held mirror. [xvi] This image can therefore never be viewed as a total Gestalt, mandating a different theory of identification and subject formation than the one provided by Althusser if we are to fully understand the social and ideological functions of the figure of the mirror in media metalanguages and practices.
Jacques Lacan’s explication of the mirror phase/stage is much more apt given the exigencies presented by Brunellesci’s panel. At the approximate age of six months, the infant, who was previously dependent on the breast of her mother, liberates herself from the tight embrace of the maternal body and assumes a reflected image in a mirror. [xvii] This primordial and complete Gestalt, one Lacan names the “Ideal-I,” becomes imaginary, or inaccessible, upon the infant’s first utterance. These innocent words irrevocably insert the young child into a linguistic regime Lacan denominates as “the Symbolic” (see Symbolic/Imaginary/Real), foreclosing identification with that original image as the child’s conception of self is automatically refracted through the social matrix she now occupies. [xviii] Hence, all future attempts of the subject to retroactively identify with this Gestalt can only be asymptotic, or incomplete, installing a void or lack in the subject that Lacan refers to as an “organic insufficiency.” This lack also taints the subject’s social relationships with an indelible aggressive tension that precludes their ability to completely identify with those imagetexts disseminated by the ISAs. Hysterically projecting her aggressivity onto every imagetext she encounters, the subject produces an effect similar to Eco’s “noise,” [xix] derailing the ISAs project of complete ideological determination.
This primal aggressivity, or, in Zizekian terms, the irreducible gap between the signifier that represents the subject and the non-symbolized surplus of her mere existence. [xx] can also engender perverse and potentially subversive (mis/dis)identifications with the imagetexts that circulate in the subject’s visual field. Roland Barthes’ discussion of the Sadean libertine’s multiplication of the mirror’s reflections during his orgies reveals how these surplus aggressions and desires can create a “criminal surface” that inundates the debauched subject with a luminous, fluid image of her excess. [xxi] Coating the surface of the mirror with his cum, the Sadean roué enacts a collapse of all symbolic referents with this “noise” while reveling in his sublime and ineffable lubricity. [xxii] Baudelaire’s unsightly protagonist also recognizes that the law that inflicts him with pain also provides him with rare moments of pleasure. His choice to relish this paradox is not “an entirely personal matter,” however, for it may have profound effects on both the medium and its social message.
I acknowledge that my discussion is limited to the media of Italian Renaissance painting and Classical Greek and modern French poetry. Although the mirror may be germane to discussions of these media and the mediations they perform, it may not be relevant to considerations of the depthless refractions produced by “computer-aided design, synthetic holography, flight simulators, computer animation, robotic image recognition, ray tracing, texture mapping, motion control, virtual environment helmets, magnetic resonance imaging, and multi-spectral sensors” [xxiii] that are currently reconfiguring the human sensorium in ways we are yet to understand. Jean Baudrillard observes that in this new regime of mediation no staging of bodies, no performance, can be without its control screens [see Screen, (2)]. [xxiv] These screens, according to Baudrillard, are not there to reflect objects and subjects with the distance and magic of the mirror. Instead, their goal is to link every tableau into a circular hookup that fuses all phenomena into a perpetual video devoid of any meaning. Hence, for Baudrillard, the “mirror phase” has been supplanted by the “video phase,” [xxv] which probably renders the sedition of Sadean perversion obsolete. But there is no reason to despair, for instructions for how we may release our lewd desires into this network of computerized simulation already exist. I refer you to the lurid fictions of J G Ballard. [xxvi]
Department of Art History
[i] M H Abrams summarizes the largely mimetic role performed by the figure of the mirror in debates about the nature of various media in the Western tradition through the eighteenth century in the second chapter of his text The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition, (New York, 1953).
[ii] Plato, The Republic , trans. Richard W. Sterling and William C. Scott (New York, 1985), pg. 286.
[iii] Leonardo Da Vinci, Treatise on Painting [Codex Urbinas Latinus 1270], trans. A. Philip McMahon (Princeton, New Jersey, 1956), pg. 48.
[iv] Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford, 1977), pg. 158.
[v] Ibid, pg. 158-9.
[vi] Reconstruction of Brunellesci’s first perspective experiment, as reproduced in Hubert Damisch, Théorie du /nuage/: pour une historie de la peinture (Paris, 1972) and Rosalind Krauss, Bachelors (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1999), pg. 83.
[vii] Antonio Manetti, Vita di Ser Brunellesco , quoted in A Documentary History of Art , vol. 1, The Middle Ages and the Renaissance , ed. E. Gilmore Holt (New York, 1957), pg. 171.
[viii] Ibid, pg. 172.
[x] Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Toward an Investigation)” in Mapping Ideology, ed. Slavoj Zizek (London, 1994 ), pg. 134.
[xi] Ibid, pg. 134-5.
[xii] Ibid, pg. 112.
[xiii] Ibid, pg. 110-1.
[xiv] Ibid, pg. 136.
[xv] Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics (Bloomington, Indiana, 1976), pg. 33.
[xvi] Manetti, op. cit., pg. 171-2.
[xvii] Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage As Formative of the Function of the I As Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,” in Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York, 1977 ), pg. 1-2.
[xviii] Ibid, pg. 2 and J. Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-Analysis , translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York, 1973 ), pg. 251.
[xix] Laplanche and Pontalis, op. cit., pg. 251.
[xx] Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1991), pg. 131-2 and Lacan, op. cit., pg. 6.
[xxi] Roland Barthes, Sade/Fourier/Loyola , trans. Richard Howard (New York, 1976 ), pg. 138.
[xxii] Ibid, pg. 138-9.
[xxiii] Quoted from Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1990), pg. 1 and W J T Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (Chicago, 1994), pg. 23-4.
[xxiv] Jean Baudrillard, America, trans. Chris Turner (London, 1988 ), pg. 36-7.
[xxv] Ibid, pg. 37.
[xxvi] J G Ballard, “Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan,” The Best Short Stories of J G Ballard (New York, 1978), pg. 299-302 and Crash (New York, 1973).
Abrams, M H. 1953. The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press.
Althusser, Louis. 1994. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Toward an Investigation).” In Mapping Ideology, edited by Slavoj Zizek. London: Verso.
Ballard, J G. 1973. Crash. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
———-. 1978. “Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan.” In The Best Short Stories of J G Ballard. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
Barthes, Roland. 1976. Sade/Fourier/Loyola, translated by Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang.
Baudelaire, Charles. 1970. “The Mirror.” In Paris Spleen, 1869, translated by Louise Varèse. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation.
Baudrillard, Jean. 1988. America, translated by Chris Turner. London: Verso.
Crary, Jonathan. 1990. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Da Vinci, Leonardo. 1956. Treatise on Painting [Codex Urbinas Latinus 1270], translated by A. Phillip McMahon. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Damisch, Hubert. 1972. Théorie du /nuage/: pour un historie de la peinture. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.
Eco, Umberto. 1976. A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.
Gallop, Jane. 1985. Reading Lacan. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Krauss, Rosalind. 1999. Bachelors. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Lacan, Jacques. 1977. “The Mirror Stage As Formative of the Function of the I As Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” In Écrits: A Selection , translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.
Laplanche, J. and J.-B. Pontalis. 1973. The Language of Psycho-Analysis, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.
Manetti, Antonio. 1957. Vita di Ser Brunellesco, excerpted in A Documentary History of Art, vol. 1, The Middle Ages and the Renaissance, selected and edited by Elizabeth Gilmore Holt. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc.
Mitchell, W J T. 1994. Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Plato. 1985. The Republic, translated by Richard W. Sterling and William C. Scott. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Williams, Raymond. 1977. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Zizek, Slavoj. 1991. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.