Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Existential Eye

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599 - 1660) - Las Meninas, 1656

'From one point of view, the mirror can be said to carry out with complete success that reduplication of the world which, in the classical account of Western art (Pliny, Vasari, Gombrich), is the constant aim of the tradition. The perfect replication of the real in its mirrored reflection is thus a kind of utopian fulfilment of painting's realist project, and between the mirror and painting there exists a bond of similarity which European painters have not hesitated to stress: one need think only of obvious cases where the similarity stated - the convex 'witness' mirror in Van Eyck's Arnolfini Marriage, the self-portraits of Dürer, the mirror that gives us the odalisque's face in the Rokeby Venus, or the explicit play between mirror and canvas in Las Meninas (though in each of these cases there is also a play against the equation of mirror and painting; the painting is always that which exceeds or goes beyond the mirror)...

Yet, although the mirror is an instrument that gives us the world in all its original presence, the status of the mirror is also ambiguous. It has another, less plenary aspect, an aspect doubtless crucial in the case of the child, though that first encounter with the mirror can hardly be regarded as a special case, or confined only to childhood development. We know from childhood psychology that the child realises from the behaviour of others that it exists somewhere in space and that it is in constant transaction with the vision of others: it soon learns to retrace with its own eyes the path of an adult glance. We know also that at some point the child apprehends its existence as an image for others, and that this image is not simply a spectacle, but an identification, an image to be assumed by the self. What clinical psychology cannot be said to have determined is whether in this mirror phase of development encounter with an actual mirror is necessary to predicate the identification; but whether or not a causal and precipitating function is ascribed to an actual reflection, it remains that it is only in the transactions with a mirrored reflection that the child apprehends its full existence as an image for others. Henceforth the child cannot place itself at the single centre of its universe, but by a Copernican shift, must think of itself as a decentred image seen from the place the child cannot occupy, an image which nevertheless is to be assumed by the child as its visual identification. For the child the mirror is accordingly a place of spatial disruption: the laws of the mirror are not the same as those of ordinary space, as Alice discovers; in particular the mirror installs a principle of discrepancy between the mirror image and its original, and learning how the mirror works involves checking, point by point, the original against the double. The uncanniness of the mirror is not confined, however, only to childhood. In adult life it is still by checking the appearance disclosed by the mirror against the complex social codes of self-presentation that the individual adjusts his or her own persona in everyday existence. Here also the mirror is a place of the gap and the discrepancy, between the actual reflection and the social codes of presentation, and in both childhood and adult experience the mirror repeats its action of alterity: the mirror does not simply reflect things as they are, in plenitude and presence; it opens an interval between the place the self feels as its actual residence or location, 'behind the nose', and the unknowable place at which the self will appear in the image.

It is in this experience epitomised by the mirror, yet occurring constantly in the socialised existence of adult life (and here one must point to an anxiety which not even psychoanalysis has fully named, yet which seems rooted in the human condition: fear of being observed), that the individual passes from vision - simply seeing the world and opening, like a camera, on to its light - into visuality, the subjective experience of seeing-and-being-seen. In vision, the world is a continuum without division, but in visuality the continuum is split - on this side ('behind the eyes'), consciousness without an image; on the far side ('in the eyes of others'), image without consciousness; the self must articulate across this divide. And even if we discount the psychoanalytic tale of the 'mirror phase', nevertheless this remains as the disconcerting truth of the mirror: it gives back ourselves to ourselves; but in a form which is not quite our self. Those eyes are our eyes, but they look at us; and in those eyes that are both our own and not our own, what we experience is 'being looked at' which surrounds our consciousness on all sides ('self-consciousness), but is here mysteriously collected by the mirror into a line of vision: the gaze.'

From Visionary Delays: Ingres in the Atelier of David by Norman Bryson