Imagine an absence of mirrors. Without any reflective surface, how would anyone know what his face looked like? Whether or not he is comely? And, what of the link between his facial appearance and his self-identity, his distinctiveness? Everything is then in the eye, in the eye of the Other. In the absence of mirrors, the eye of the Other is the reflective surface in which we see ourselves. But images, effigies, art can be intercessionary objects traversing the gulf between the self and the self. But, more about this, later.
First, Martin Buber (1878-1965) in I and Thou gave an account of the what it is like when a person encounters, confronts the material world, what he termed “It” and what it is like to encounter a self, a “You”. Buber argues that the constancy of the “I” develops because in its relationship to the world, a changing world, “the consciousness of the constant partner, the I-consciousness crystallises”. Buber conceives the world as having “density and duration” and that its “articulation can be surveyed”. In addition he says:
One recounts it with one’s eyes closed and then checks it with one’s eyes open…it is only about it that you can come to an understanding with others; although it takes a somewhat different form for everyone, it is prepared to be a common object for you; but you cannot encounter others in it. Without it You cannot remain alive, its reliability preserves You.
Buber is describing the material world, “It” as lasting, objective, reliable and sustaining for the self. But what Buber wants to do is to draw a distinction between this attitude towards the material world, towards “It” and the attitude towards persons, towards “You”.
The world [You] that appears to you in this way is unreliable, for it appears always new to You, and you cannot take it by its word. It lacks density…it cannot be surveyed,…it does not stand outside you, it touches you, it touches your ground
In this account, selves are unpredictable and cannot be grasped in full like an inert material object can. Indeed, Buber suggests that persons influence our emotions, that is, persons do not merely stand outside us like a stone might but persons invade our emotional life, our consciousness, thereby touching us. Furthermore, there is the notion that we depend on the material world- “without It a human being cannot live. But whoever lives only with that is not human”.
Buber emphasizes that sociality is a prerequisite of being human, that mutuality, the capacity to reciprocate the regard for us by other beings is crucial:
Here I and You confront each other freely in a reciprocity that is not involved in or tainted by any causality
This mutuality is not dependent on physical forces, it is expressly human, particularly because it is freely given. The freedom to act towards another with similar regard as one has for oneself and without being bound by duty to act as such, but because one wants to, is in this account supremely human.
An absence of mirrors deepens our understanding of the degree to which the regard of Others, their gaze and surveillance, reflect us as in a mirror and thereby constituting, some might add consolidating us into the self that we know and are. No need here for effigies, for the crafted model that stands in whilst at the same time transmitting what is unseen, evoking it as a mystery to itself.
But, with the proliferation of mirrors, be they film or photos, has the mirroring eye lost some of its power to enchant us, drawing us into the world of the Other and holding us singular but in mutuality? Is this perhaps the root cause of the growing narcissism, the absence of regard for the Other?