Through the Looking Glass
Sabine Melchior-Bonnet's book, The Mirror, crosses several areas of study to trace the evolving role of the looking glass and its development on self-consciousness. According to Melchior-Bonnet, the mirror has assumed many roles over time. Ancient texts closely linked magic and scientific thought to refer to the mirror as a tool of divination. In medieval times, it was renowned for its ability to enhance visual acuity and radiate light, but was also met with great suspicion. Medieval art presented the mirror as either a "reflection of God or an instrument of the devil."
A better understanding of optical science, however, demystified the reflected image to the point that it became utilitarian. Melchior-Bonnet points out that "with the discovery of specific components of the eye…the relationships between man and the world were in the process of being transformed." This new understanding of the eye, coupled with the technological development of the plane mirror, offered a new perspective of the viewer that was "no longer symbolic or analogical, but rather critical and discursive."
As ideas about the mirror and reflection changed, so did the meaning of the reflected image. Looking in the mirror metaphorically stood for many things over time: God looking at conscience, society evaluating conformity, and finally self-consciousness itself. Representations of the mirror in art affirm these various roles; however, Melchior-Bonnet points out that 20th century art disproportionately represents broken or empty mirrors, which indicates a serious identity crisis. As technological innovations show us what was once impossible to reproduce (movement, depth, even the interior of the body), the image is imbued with new power.
In light of our mastery of the reflection and this new power of the image, Melchior-Bonnet concludes that it is up to us to create a "psychology and a social space that somehow correspond to these innovations…" This poses an interesting question about how technology will relate to self-consciousness in the future, and how we can better harness technology to resolve our identity crisis.Tweet