Thursday, May 26, 2016

OverAnalyzed: Mirrors and Media

Taxi Driver, Supernatural, William Wilson, Dark Souls II, The Picture of Dorian Gray: What do all of these have in common? Each one involves a tense scene involving a mirror or mirror stand-in. But why? Let us venture an exploration of various mirror scenes in media and the philosophical ramifications thereof. In particular, we will look to Hegel’s Master-Slave Dialectic, Lacan’s theory of the Mirror Stage, and Merleau-Ponty’s “Eye and Mind” to explain the meaning behind various famous and not-so-famous mirror scenes.

According to Hegel, “self-consciousness exists in itself and for itself, in that, and by the fact that it exists for another self-consciousness that is to say, it is only by being acknowledged or ‘recognized.’” In addition, self-consciousness duplicates itself—this results first in a losing of the self, for it views itself as another being, but it also sublates the duplicate self. Doing so, the first self sublates itself, for the second self is only a copy of the first self. All of this is necessary because of the loss of self inherent in duplication. The self must find itself via sublation of the duplicate. (Hegel 178-181).

In Edgar Allan Poe’s story “William Wilson,” the narrator is pursued through his life by an exact double—the titular William Wilson—who upsets him at every turn, stealing every glory for himself. At the climactic moment, the narrator draws a sword and stabs his doppelganger, only to find himself faced with a mirror wherein Wilson stands, spattered with blood and dying. Wilson gasps out a final victorious statement: “You have conquered, and I yield. Yet, henceforward art thou also dead—dead to the World, to Heaven and to Hope! In me didst thou exist—and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself.” Throughout the story, the narrator has slowly lost himself because of his double’s existence and must re-find himself through sublation—via sword, in this case. But since the narrator’s doppelganger is himself, he sublates himself.  

A continuation of this sublation can be found later in the Master-Slave Dialectic. In paragraph 187, Hegel notes that one consciousness must combat another in order to truly exist. They must not only recognize each other, but they must recognize themselves as an independent self-consciousness through overpowering another consciousness. When characters in media confront their mirror images, they are in a sense combatting themselves, a self that wants to sublate the non-mirror self as much as the opposite is true. “It must view its otherness as pure existence for itself or as absolute negation.” (Hegel 187).

One example of this violent sublation may be found in Taxi Driver’s famous mirror scene, wherein a mohawked, wild-eyed, gun-toting Travis Bickle shouts at his reflection, “You talking to me? You talking to me?” Bickle externalizes the conflict between consciousnesses through his rage at the mirror. He is confronting himself, and in doing so, dominating his doubled conscious. With this conquest, Bickle defeats an aspect of himself—namely, the kind of person who would look twice at a raging man with a loaded gun and foaming mouth. In essence, Bickle succumbs entirely to his desire to destroy other consciousnesses, which is exactly what he does during Taxi Driver’s climax. The mirror scene serves to foreshadow this change in Bickle’s mental makeup. He has gone from a relatively soft-spoken man to a raging, psychopathic vigilante, and this transformation is heralded by his internal conflict before the mirror.

Not only that, but by defeating his mirror-self, Bickle is provided with the validation that he is capable of mastering other consciousnesses. In a sense, he has nerved himself up for the film’s violent climax. Mental mastery of his mirrored-self allows him to physically master pimps and gangsters.

In that example, external-Bickle, not mirror-Bickle, is the victor of the struggle. However, sometimes the opposite is true. Sometimes the mirror-consciousness expresses some potent subconscious flaw, guilt, or weakness that the external-consciousness is unaware of. When this happens, as in the Supernatural episode “Bloody Mary,” dire consequences can ensue.

“Bloody Mary” opens with a town plagued by a rash of mysterious deaths. Monster-hunting brothers Sam and Dean Winchester eventually trace the killings to their source—a possessed mirror hidden in a warehouse. As Sam, alone, approaches the mirror, he is confronted by a copy of himself inside the mirror. Mirror-Sam points an accusing finger, and external-Sam’s eyes begin to bleed. Meanwhile mirror-Sam recites a list of all of Sam’s secret guilts, things that external-Sam kept hidden even from his brother. With each statement, more blood gushes from external-Sam’s eyes and nose. Until the timely intervention of Dean and a sledgehammer, mirror-Sam showed every sign of killing—that is to say, subsuming—external-Sam. This is sublation by the mirror-self taken to an extreme, of course, but from a logistics standpoint, it would be difficult to portray a purely mental sublation on film.

An additional twist occurs when Bloody Mary is defeated by exposing one mirror-self to a mirror, causing the two consciousnesses—mirror-self and mirrored-mirror-self—to mutually recognize each other before mutually sublating, i.e. killing, each other. Could it be that when a mirror-self is created by a consciousness viewing a mirror, the mirror-self’s consciousness continues to exist if it is not sublated by the external-self? This would explain how Bloody Mary’s mirror-self creates an additional consciousness.

So far we have seen very different outcomes to Hegel’s idea of the Master-Slave Dialectic. On the one hand, Bickle’s shift into his raging form is representative of the strength and internal affirmation a consciousness can draw from a conflict between consciousnesses. Alternately, Sam’s near-death to a homicidal mirror-dwelling spirit represents the initial destruction to the consciousness resulting from a clash of wills.

Whereas with the previous two examples the conflict occurs on a purely mental level (despite the physical toll it inflicts on Sam), many examples of this Master-Slave tension in media play out in the physical realm. In the fantasy role-playing video game Dark Souls II, player characters encounter a giant boss enemy known as the Mirror Knight, a massive humanoid wearing reflective armor and carrying a full-length oval mirror as a shield. When the Mirror Knight attacks the player, it occasionally slams this mirror shield down. At this point, a murky image of another player summoned from online appears within the mirror and begins to hammer at the shield’s interior in an attempt to escape. If the Mirror Knight is not defeated before the enemy player escapes, the player will have to confront not only the Mirror Knight boss but an enemy player possessing human intellect and skill.

In the cases of Travis Bickle and Sam Winchester, their continuing existence hinged upon their willingness to expose their consciousness to mental danger—were they subsumed, their consciousness would no longer exist, but their physical body would remain (albeit without any animating force). However, with the combat between player and enemy player which unfolds in the Mirror Knight battle, the continuing existence of their consciousness relies upon their willingness to stake their lives on both the mental and physical plane. If one player is aggressive but lacks any strategy, they are not only weaker mentally—for their lack of a plan indicates the other’s mastery—but physically, as they very rapidly die. Conversely, if one player has a strategy lacking physical aggression, they will be overcome sooner or later and thus end up mastered mentally as well—for the ceasing of their consciousness to exist is a sort of forfeit to the opponent. Of note is the fact that the Mirror Knight does not summon a physical copy of the player—equipment, mechanical stats, etc.—but instead a mental copy. One player may be wearing flimsy robes and the other armor carved from stone, but each is equally human, equally able to react and plan and trick. So while the combat takes place on a “physical” plane, it only externalizes a mental duel. Much like as in chess, the player characters only act out physically the mental abilities the players possess.

A less aggressive aspect of the mirror which Merleau-Ponty addresses in “Eye in Mind” is the Cartesian view of mirror images. When a Cartesian thinker views a mirror, Merleau-Ponty states, “the mirror image is in no sense a part of him.” The mirror image is an entirely separate entity. (Merleau-Ponty 130).

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, protagonist Dorian Grey operates in this Cartesian way of thinking. All the effects of his dissolute lifestyle are displaced onto his portrait—which initially is a mirror image of young Dorian. In the beginning, then, Dorian’s portrait serves as a mirror of Dorian. However, as Dorian drinks, gambles, and copulates his way through life, his portrait experiences the accompanying physical changes—turning wrinkled and sinister.

While Dorian takes pains to hide the portrait’s decay, he does not seem to think of the portrait as a part of his existence. Instead, Dorian acts as if the portrait is a distinct entity, one that bears his burdens for him. This treatment of the “mirror” image as not-Dorian falls within the umbrella of Cartesian thinking Merleau-Ponty describes in “Eye and Mind.”

However, this method of viewing the mirror-self is not the correct one. According to Merleau-Ponty, the view of the self in the mirror is an intrinsic part of the viewer’s body. Eventually, Dorian comes to recognize his portrait-self as a part of his consciousness, namely, the conscience. Not only that, when he stabs his portrait in an attempt to eliminate his conscience, he himself dies. This connection between the portrait and the self falls in line with Merleau-Ponty’s interpretation of the self in the mirror. The portrait is not merely Dorian’s conscience, it is a part of his physical body, inextricably linked together in some psychic communion. Though Dorian initially succeeded in removing his conscience from his consciousness, he was unable to sever the link completely. This is supported by the fact that, after death, each sign of his moral dissolution appears on his physical body. With death, the conscience rejoins the rest of his consciousness, resulting in a whole, but dead, self. In addition, this connection between portrait Dorian and physical Dorian helps to explain why Dorian dies after stabbing the picture. Not only that, but Dorian’s death links back to the Hegelian idea that sublation of one’s copy results in the sublation of oneself.

Another aspect of Dorian’s portrait can be found in Merleau-Ponty’s words: “Everything that is most secret about me passes into that face.” With each covert, spiteful, sinful act, the portrait morphs into a more and more hideous visage. All of Dorian’s secrets—the murder of Basil Hallward, the suicide of Sibyl Vane, and every other vice—all of them transfer into the portrait and render explicit Dorian’s corruption. It seems that while the portrait does not mirror Dorian’s physical features, it certainly does mirror his spiritual features. (Merleau-Ponty 187).

One theme in particular runs throughout all of these mirror scenes: Death. Either the external-self or the mirror-self is destroyed in every example. But why? From a Hegelian standpoint, the destruction of the duplicate consciousness may be seen as an externalization of sublation. In addition, an externalized sublation is much easier to depict in visual media.

Or could it be that, when faced with a consciousness identical to one’s own, the instinctive reaction is violence? A common thread in human culture is the idea that each person is unique, that they’re they only “you” in the whole wide universe. Someone may derive a sense of identity from this knowledge—no matter their faults and failures, they are the only them. A mirror-self rocks that assumption to its very core. And so, faced with something which threatens their fundamental identity, the fight-or-flight reaction triggers. Since, in general, characters running away does not make for good fiction, the fight reaction is emphasized in media, resulting in the violent solutions to these duplicate-selves. By destroying the duplicate-self, identity is reaffirmed and a greater sense of self is obtained.

As we have seen, philosophy can deepen the meanings found in various media, adding new layers of interpretation.  Travis Bickle’s transformation before the mirror in Taxi Driver becomes not just a way to show his growing mental instability, but to emphasize that he is now willing to risk his life in order to master others. Media can also provide elucidations of philosophical theories, such as Merleau-Ponty’s ideas regarding the connection between physical-self and mirror-self. Just remember, next time you look in the mirror: The mirror looks back at you. And when the mirror gazes upon you, one or the other must be destroyed.

Works Cited
“Bloody Mary.” Supernatural: Season One. Warner Brothers, 2006. DVD.
Dark Souls II. Dev. From Software. Pub. Namco Bandai, 2014. Xbox 360.
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm. The Phenomenology of Mind. 1807. Print.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. “Eye and Mind.” The Primacy of Perception. Trans. Carleton
   Dallery. Ed. James Edie. Northwestern University Press: Evanston, 1964. Print.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “William Wilson.” Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. Lea and
   Blanchard: Philadelphia, 1840. Print.
Taxi Driver. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Perf. Robert De Niro. Columbia Pictures, 1999. DVD.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine: London, 1890.