Thursday, September 15, 2005

Random tangent on reflection

All this reflection on Kierkegaard and reflection has me up nights, wondering what it actually means. What does it mean in relation to consciousness in general? There remains much to discover about the connection between the physical process of reflection and the mental process of reflection that is characteristic of human thought. Of course it isn’t exclusively human: in an experiment conducted in 1970 Gordon Gallup showed that chimpanzees recognize themselves in mirrors, and more recently the scientists Diana Reiss and Lori Marino have shown that bottlenose dolphins also have this capability. By studying the development of reflective consciousness and the cognitive abilities of animals we may be able to learn how this capability evolved in earlier stages of our own history. We hope to discover more about ourselves, not just in the earliest stages of our history, but in the way we live our lives now.

Of course the word ‘reflection’ takes on somewhat different meaning when considered as an attribute of either mental or physical processes. The reproduction of visual phenomena in a mirror (or something functioning as a mirror, like a body of water) would seem to be a less complicated process than what happens when our minds (and those of chimpanzees and bottlenose dolphins) go to work. But what is really meant by ‘reflective’ thought? Thinking about thinking? Is it any different than other kinds of thought? Since speech is also considered a marker for the threshold of higher intelligence, is mental reflection somehow connected to the development of language? In fact, for the most part thought really doesn’t seem very reflective at all; it seems to me that a better analogy for cognition is construction. Of course there still remains thinking about thinking and the ability of people to think about themselves, and this certainly does seem to have something in common with the physical process involving light and mirrors.

When were humans first able to see themselves as others? Maybe mirrors, in addition to allowing us to see ourselves, helped us understand that the relationship between an individual and his or her self is as infinitely distant as it is immediate. In addition to observing the process of reflection in nature, it might be worth inquiring into this process as it occurs in human history and culture. In the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis, their expulsion from the Garden of Eden occurs after they’ve eaten fruit from the tree of knowledge, and I wonder whether in the moment they saw themselves as naked there wasn’t also an insight that marked the beginning of reflective thought. Of course there aren’t any mirrors in the story and there certainly isn’t any mention of a specifically reflective knowledge, but how could they understand that they lacked clothes when clothes had never existed before? Could it mean that they recognized their lack of fur and even hair on their bodies? Or does ‘naked’ here have some meaning besides that of being clothed? How much does the fall of man have to do with the dawning of higher intelligence? According to the story, the trouble comes from the serpent, and though Adam and Eve are responsible for their fall it seems to me significant that it doesn’t originate in themselves. The way the world is these days, it now seems necessary to repeat (if only for myself) that the fall came from disobeying God, and in that they had a little help. It doesn’t come from thinking or talking. Adam and Eve were thinking before the fall (admittedly, Eve seems to do most of it after Adam took care of the naming), but thinking itself isn’t necessarily bad. Public discussion has been poisoned to such an extent that it’s hardly possible to disagree with someone’s opinion without having one’s motives questioned or character maligned. But I’m drifting away from the subject of mirrors and consciousness.

There are several Greek and Roman myths in which mirrors play an important part. The story of Narcissus, which we have from Ovid, is probably the most famous. It’s a fable driven by several ‘what if’ ideas: what if failed to see ourselves in our reflections, and what if we loved ourselves as others? And by ‘others’ we should probably understand not just ‘other than ourselves’ but ‘other than what we really are’, which is to say human beings capable of reflection and knowing ourselves as we know others. This story in which reflection is such an important factor is (with respect to cognition) really about the terrifying result of what might happen if someone did not have reflective consciousness. The young boy isn’t trapped by the infatuation of self with self, but by the infatuation of self with another whose identity he fails to recognize. In that sense our understanding of ‘narcissism’ has little to do with the character for whom it is named. This doesn’t necessarily invalidate the term, but along with our common understanding of the condition we should also understand that Narcissus’ sad end is the result of ignorance rather than excessive love for himself.

The mere appearance of Medusa, looked at directly, turned viewers to stone, and the hero Perseus was able to defeat her only by using the flat of his scimitar as a mirror. Making his approach by walking backwards and looking at her reflected image, he was able to determine her position and then cut off her head with that same scimitar. He then kept the head in a bag and pulled it out when he needed to turn his own enemies to stone. The safety in viewing Medusa’s reflection in the sword probably has something to do with the relatively imprecise reflective qualities of polished metal, but no reflection, however good, is really exact. The reversal of the gorgon’s image may also have played a part in Perseus’ protection, but in either case the mitigating power of reflection would seem to reside in the difference between the reflected image and the thing itself.

In the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians there is the famous verse, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (King James Version). In the original Greek version the word for ‘glass’ is esoptrou, for which a more accurate translation is ‘mirror,’ since what St. Paul probably had in mind were the shiny steel mirrors commonly in use at the time. The phrase arti di esoptrou ‘through a glass’ (‘mirror’) isn’t quite the same as it was for Alice, of course, referring here perhaps to the simple fact that in looking at one’s reflection, it only seems to appear at a distance behind the glass equal to that in which the viewer stands in front of it. ‘Darkly’ is a translation of ainigmati, for which the more obvious translation is the cognate, enigmatically, which makes a great deal of sense as well. More prosaically, the word refers to the fact that steel mirrors didn’t reflect quite so well as mirrors do today. And of course the image was reversed, as was the gorgon’s image in Perseus’ scimitar, or in any other mirror. In his commentary on the letter, St. Thomas Aquinas takes a much more expansive view of the passage. He writes, ‘And so all creation is a mirror for us; because from the order and goodness and multitude which are caused in things by God, we come to a knowledge of His power, goodness and eminence. And this knowledge is called seeing in a mirror.’ This comes after his description of the knowledge God has for himself and the knowledge that angels have of Him. Humans are then a third order of being that understands God through his creation. ‘Creation is a mirror for us,’ through which we can come to know God, and since we are made in the image of God, we can come to know ourselves as well. Some day (‘then’) it will all be cleared up, and we will see ‘face to face’, which Aquinas tells us we should probably understand metaphorically. We will understand God as he really is. Of course it should go without saying that there has always been some confusion about God and who he really is. Some people have even confused themselves with God.

Just a few decades after Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians, the Roman emperor Vespasian lay dying and is reported to have said, “Woe is me, I’m turning into a god.” He was showing a bit of gallows humor with what by then had become the custom of declaring emperors gods after their death, an official practice that required ratification by the Roman Senate. Both of Vespasian’s sons, Titus and Domitian, reigned after his death. Titus had been the general in charge of the sack of Jerusalem, and although he had a short reign himself, he was also declared a god. Domition wasn’t so lucky. He ruled Rome from 81 to 96 AD, often with great cruelty, and the historian Suetonius reports that he had mirrors installed on the palace walls because he feared enemies in his own court so much that he that he was worried about being taken by surprise in his own home. He was in fact assassinated, which means that his paranoia was an inadequate line of defense, and after his death the senate, rather than declaring him divine, declared him damnatio memoriae, literally, obviously, ‘damnation of memory’. Other than a possible connection between cruelty and paranoia there isn’t much in the episode relevant to our understanding of mirrors and cognition, but it’s also a good story.

Although they didn’t do much good for Domitian, mirrors have been extremely important in the advancement of technology. In 1704, Sir Isaac Newton used mirrors for the first time to greatly expand the power of the telescope, and though astronomers have long since moved on to telescopes utilizing high frequency radio technology, it’s still true that these new devices are based on the concept of reflection. Recently researchers at MIT have developed a new kind of mirror, a so-called ‘perfect’ mirror, which combines the best features of both metallic (traditional) and dielectric (nonconductive) mirrors to reflect light with virtually no loss of energy. Moreover, this reflective technology can be designed with alternating layers of a plastic and tellurium (a metal) to create a flexible material, usable in lightweight composite form, even fabric, and therefore practicable in any number of applications: weapons, electronics, clothes, as well as combinations thereof. All this is exciting, but it’s also a little frightening.

Many customs have developed around mirrors, some of them to deal with fears that run from the core to the very edge of our being. On an occasion of death, there is a Jewish custom that all the mirrors in the house are covered so that mourners look to each other rather than themselves for sympathy. Shiva isn’t a time for vanity either; it is rather a period of mourning and as such a time for introspection. Mirrors (perhaps somewhat paradoxically) have been found to interfere with this.

On the other end of the ontological spectrum, the time an actor spends in front of a mirror before going out to perform is for some a ritualized moment as they begin mentally transforming themselves from the persons they understand themselves to be into the characters they intend to bring to life. Magicians use mirrors on stage in order to alter the audience’s perception of reality. Of course, quite apart from their utilization by scientists and performers, mirrors have long been thought to have strange powers and even magical properties, and some of this may well be due to the fact that they share the property of reflection with the human mind.

From the brothers Grimm by way of Walt Disney we have the story of Snow White, which of course includes the character of the evil witch, who when looking into her magic mirror would recite her secret request: “Mirror, mirror, on the wall / who is the fairest of them all?” While the mirror in the story of Narcissus signified an imprisoned mind of limited cognitive ability, the witch’s mirror marks an expanded consciousness in which the glass becomes a kind of magic window or video screen that shows Snow White instead of herself. The combination of her chant (a kind of linguistic formula, really) with the mirror gives her the power to see more in the mirror than what would seem ordinarily possible. This striving to go beyond what is ordinarily possible is also one of the many charming aspects of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. The idea that there is another world on the other side of a mirror is every bit as enticing as it appears so obviously false. Of course it doesn’t seem possible to go through a mirror to an entirely different world, and yet we do it every day. We are in fact doing so right now.

Whether language is the result of reflective consciousness or its cause or something else entirely, the things of the world were first reflected in words and then recreated with words towards whatever ends we saw fit. Adam began naming things around him. To this very day we continue what he started, and the result is this recreation we inhabit every bit as much as the world as it was originally given to us. Maybe more. This is especially true in any dimension of our lives involving the use of words. It’s true when you read the newspaper. Even more so if you’re trying to write something yourself; writers have been known to juggle words in their heads for hours at a time. It’s true when you go to therapy, and for pretty much the same reasons that it’s true for writer. As you talk to your counselor you almost completely ignore the objects in the room in order to more fully inhabit the world you are creating for her with words. It is perhaps less true for my bartender, aware as she must be of the drinks she is pouring and the counter she’s cleaning, although it’s certainly the world of words she focuses on in jokes and conversation. Even a laborer or a craftsman working in silence is likely to be working with the results of words. As my contractor friend pounds nails into 2” x 4”s on the construction site he is working with things, but they are things every bit as much the products of a linguistically differentiated consciousness as they are the products of trees and metallic minerals.

All of which helpful in understanding a world forged by a consciousness that is to a greater or lesser degree mediated by language, and that this mediation will always give rise to a certain amount of tension. A woody thing growing out of the ground is not itself the word ‘tree’, but on the other hand we are able to do with it what we want because we have named it, and there isn’t any way of avoiding the fact that trees and their wood have become part of the structure we acknowledge as reality. There isn’t very much tension here, but what if we consider instead an object in space, whose gravity we can detect but which is otherwise invisible? Is there the same amount of tension, once it has been called a black hole? What about the most recently calculated last digit in pi? That might seem real enough, but what about that one after that, as yet uncalculated? Is that real? What about the ‘slithy toves’ in Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky? Are they real? If not, then how can we talk about them? If yes, is there therefore more or less tension because they lack correspondence with the world, as we commonly understand it? What about Adam and Eve? Perseus? Domitian? Jacob Grimm and Lewis and Alice and my bartender, how can we measure their reality?


Blogger Jonathan Potter said...

This reminds me of Bruce Lee in the mirrored room in Enter the Dragon.

And you skirted the edges of it, but there is Walker Percy's memorable summation about language -- that we know neither as dogs (stimulus-response) nor as angels (direct apprehension) but as men, which is to say we can only know one thing by laying it alongside another (coupling, or you could say mirroring, thing and word in the act of naming). (This isn't an exact quote, but I think he wrote something very close to that.)

Also: in the Postscript, SK refers to language as "the double-reflection" -- which I always thought was his own apprehension of something like Percy's (and Peirce's) semiotic.

9:00 PM  
Blogger Quin Finnegan said...

I think WP mentions the 'slithy toves' somewhere, too. And I wish I'd remembered that Bruce Lee scene myself; I would have thrown that in there with everything else.

10:57 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home