Mirrors, like magnets, or helium, possess quasi-magical qualities— we’re helpless to explain them satisfactorily either to ourselves or to others. The wonder supposedly fades for adults on an acknowledged, conversational level, but watch us in their vicinity: “indistinguishable from magic.” If we do understand their physical causes (and no promises: why do some things reflect and other things not?), we’re still dumbfounded by their effects no less than children. The fascination has a few sources. The first: seeing ourselves from the outside; fascination stemming from both narcissism and a more general reflexive curiosity. Narcissus, mirror phase, selfies, zits, stares. Another source is the doubling or multiplication of space— the “other side of the looking glass” and its false depth. A third— related but distinct from the second— is the optical power of reflection itself. There are probably more.
An example of the third that would differentiate it from the second: holding a laser-pointer up to two facing mirrors in a fog-machined room. A thick cage of red lines shoots back and forth, in space, all over the room. Here, the fascination comes from the multiplication of things on “this side” of the mirror— similar to your watch reflecting the Sun across a giant indoor space, like an auditorium. The slightest flick of the wrist causes the Sun to race around the room, blinding people on the other side. Mirrors are always multipliers of light, but here it brings awareness to light itself, brandishing light, making us see and pay attention to the weirdness of light, of optics.
When you go to a pizzeria with mirrored walls, despite what you know intellectually, you still believe on some level that the softball team two tables down now extends to infinity. Infinite paper plates, freckles, dads. This is the miracle of the multiplication of space; you’re no longer paying attention to light but to surface and object. Imagine a hall of mirrors in an apartment lobby or mirrored elevator— isn’t this the exact opposite of a narcissistic pleasure? You’re actually trying to get yourself out of the picture, bending and twisting your body in order to see its endlessness. You want to catch that pure, deep, infinite space, but your own body’s blocking the visible end of infinity. One single reflection, though, is uncanny enough. We cannot fully grasp the false depth as false. No: it’s a ghost realm. Half-real. The space behind that mirror above your mantel does not seem as much false as it does forbidden.
Most encounters with mirrors are a mix of these (and maybe more) quasi-magical and difficult-to-disentangle aspects. In Argentina— in Tanti or Carlos Paz, there was a theme park with a labyrinth— the Crystal Labyrinth— made up of triangular cells. Each of the three sides could be made of a mirror, clear plexiglass, or nothing at all (allowing you to pass). Each speaking to different aspects of mirrors: as a surface, as your reflection, and as a depth. It was a nose-breaker. I couldn’t go ten seconds without slamming into plastic, swiping at the air, or being mind-fucked by the rapid alternation of these aspects.
My dad once bought me a really cool strategy game off Skymall (like all the best family gifts). It was called Khet: an Egyptian-themed laser-pointer game in which opponents flipped around a bunch of game pieces until you got your laser to hit their “sphinx.” Highly recommended, sharply strategic, equally fun to win or lose, the game exploits the same ticklishness of reflection… We understand optics enough to calculate effects but not enough to squelch delight. The wonder of light and optics, there’s an ancient word for it: caloptrics. Aristotle wrote a treatise on it, meaning that mirrors had been around long enough for a theory to be needed. How long? The very first man-made mirrors that we know of were discovered by archaeologists in the Neolithic settlement of Çatalhöyük, in what is now modern day Turkey. They’re estimated to be from between 6,000 and 6,200 BC. Man had long used the reflectivity of water, no doubt, but these— made by polishing the obsidian local to that area— were mirrors properly speaking: durable and made to purpose. This was humankind, manufacturing a tool whose only real function was to regard itself.
Now we’re getting into some serious shit, into deeper cuts that relate to the work of both André Leroi-Gourhan and Bernard Stiegler, on tools and technics. What’s important when talking about mirrors, and any technics really, is not falling into the trap of thinking tool-first or tool-in-itself, about the purely technological— avoiding either technical determinism or reducing new social reconfigurations to the technics that they used or required. The story that Leroi-Gourhan tells in Gesture and Speech, and that Stiegler follows upon and even corrects a bit in Technics and Time, is that the “soft” (man, language, ideas, subject) develops together and in a mutual chicken-and-egg dialectic with the “hard” (tools, environment, object). Leroi-Gourhan even makes a beautiful (though what I’ll take as figurative) comparison between the development of the human brain and the way that knapped stone eventually formed into recognizable tools (hand axe)— both going from a smoother form to a ridged, grooved form with greater manipulation of the environment, the milieu. The rise of man recapitulates the emergence of tools. But this is only Homo Faber, in a way; Man the Maker, the tool user— a possibly solitary relationship with the environment.
The way I see it, the history of the mirror is just as indicative and far less figurative. For what does this tiny handheld mirror, found in Anatolia, mean for us? This is real proof of the zoon logikon, Man the Social Animal— the emergence of real society. What use do humans prior to or outside of society have for a mirror? Very little. The mirror is what others see, and the need to see what others see. And like the flint beginning in an unformed natural state and being chipped away to form a tool and weapon, we can imagine the obsidian being polished and polished ever so slowly, until after some time, the face of humankind itself emerges. And chicken-and-egg-like, mirrors would not have emerged without self-image, and self-image would not have emerged without mirrors. Mankind entered its own mirror phase with this slow, reciprocal development.
To drive the point further, we still see this today, in our use of mirrors. Mirrors cannot work without us. The “hard”— the tool, the technical, the object— needs the “soft,” the discursive, the social, the ideal, us the subjects. Just as a flute can’t play itself, a mirror requires an operator to activate its “mirrorness.” Animals see another space, or optical effects, but few can see themselves. An infant can’t do it either until, what, like 18 months or so? Only then do they get their mirror license and a self-image. But even for adults, we don’t just simply “see ourselves.” There’s something shifty about our mirror image. For a second, you see something pleasant, then odd; something light, then dark; something perfect, then off. Your image refuses to sit still. Stare long enough and it really starts to get weird: noses and ears no longer make sense and look alien or like something that would grow on the ocean floor. Get up close. Observe your pores. Stare at your eyes. Try to guess or supress your mirrorface. Even if the image is steadier for some people, it’s not given by the technical form. The mirror reflects light, but you both work together to create an image. Ask the anemic, the bodybuilder, the depressive, the young Hollywood socialites that have their faces continually readjusted to fix the parallax between the mirror and public perception (R.L. Davis; 2014). These are hysterical instances, maybe, but the dynamic runs through all mirror-experience.
An old puzzle runs: “why do mirrors reverse things from left to right and not up and down?” … a ludicrous question until you try to explain it and realize that the answer is partly “hard” and partly “soft,” partly an issue of physics and partly an issue with the softer things it “reverses”— the human face and human language— partly the math of reflective symmetry and partly the fact that we imagine the “other us” as turning around into the mirror either to the left or right to face us. I came up with an invention that bypassed this issue, without solving it, around the age of eight or nine. While in a mirrored elevator, I noticed that whenever two mirrors met at a right angle, if you looked at the opposite reflection— the doubly-reflected reflection that was dissected by the edge— this was the “real you.” And so, the “true mirror” was conceived (see below). Another combination of aspects is the mirror-reflection-as-company: the “other you” as an other. The only pet I have and plan to have in my motorhome is a mirrored ball (see below) that spends all day on my bench or in my bed. No matter what angle or distance you look at a mirrored ball, your face is always in the very center. This is what makes them ideal pets: always reflecting their owners and meeting their gaze, no matter where in the room they happen to be. These are wholly distinct from disco balls, in which the smoothness of the surface is shattered, shifting the attention away from the object in the reflection and back onto optics, on the light itself.
That is to say: there are numerous kinds of mirror. Rearview, one-way, convex, concave, parabolic, carnival, decorative, scientific, floor, ceiling, wall, periscopic, microscopic, kaleidoscopic, giant reflective public works by Anish Kapoor or Jeff Koons or entire sides of skyscrapers, cellphones, store windows. Each one deserves attention for being what Bruno Latour calls a “quasi-object, quasi-subject,” for the way that it configures (sometimes uniquely) what we distinguish as “Nature” and “Society.” Or, rather, the mirror serves as a perfect “quasi-object, quasi-subject” for Latour because, when we try to get to the root of mirrorness, it appears to us as a supremely confusing “hybridization” of pure Nature and pure Society, of straight physics and the highly social. All that aside, we have to remember too that mirrorness is not only a quality of mirrors: the next session will address how “mirrorness” pops up either literally, metaphorically, or theoretically in and among the non-mirror community.