Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Self in the Age of Technoscientific Culture

[Published in Sarai Reader 09: Projections. Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Delhi, pp. 317–22, 2013]

Mis-projections: Self in the Age of Technoscientific Culture

Shiju Sam Varughese

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful‚
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.

                 “Mirror” (Sylvia Plath, 1961)

   My mirror has gone mad.

It throws weird images at me
In the past
It was sensible.
Once an angel
Once a witch
But always
One image at a time.


   Before I collapse
I throw my mad mirror
Out through the window
Down to the streets.
I killed it.

                “My Mirror has Gone Mad” (Nandita K.S., 1993)

Self and the Mirror Image

René Magritte (1898–1967), one of the greatest surrealist painters of the 20th century, once did a commissioned portrait of his poet-friend, Edward James. The painting, La Reproduction Interdite (Not to be Reproduced, 1937), depicts James facing a mirror, but the image both he and we see reflected is his back, instead of, as one would expect, his face. This mis-projection is the theme of this essay; the relationship between the self and its mirrored image, and the fear of losing correspondence between the two. 

Rene Magrite, Not to be Reproduced (1937), oil on canvas
This fear of mis-projection can be traced back to the mirror stage propounded by Jacques Lacan. The infant between his sixth and sixteenth months of growth develops a unique relationship with his/her image in the mirror by identifying it as him/herself. This self-identification helps the infant to realise him/herself as a coherent entity, separated from him/her surroundings and from other human beings (Lacan 2001). This very moment of self-constitution that establishes “a relation between the organism and its reality” (ibid., p. 4) with the aid of its reflection has a long-standing impact on the individual’s later development. The significant point here is that the subject becomes aware of itself through an exterior projection of its body on a reflective surface. This imago that constitutes the subject is a relationship between the exteriority of the body and its projection on the mirror, which is a technological device that provides a reflective surface.
This relationality the infant establishes in the mirror stage is relentlessly corroborated in his/her everyday life by spending time in front of the mirror. This little performance helps the subject reassert the correspondence between the self and its mirror image, but in a different fashion – unlike in the mirror stage, the subject engages with it in a reverse mode. In this extended mirror stage, the subject examines its reflection under the assumption that the individual self has an independent and primordial existence irrespective of the image, which is simply the projection of the subject’s physicality on a reflective surface. In the extended mirror stage, the material artefact called the mirror becomes invisible between the subject and its image (we look at the reflection and not the mirror itself), assumingly establishing a linear relationship between them. Here, the supposition of the subject is that its image is merely a reflection on the inert surface of the mirror, but this conceals the constitution of the self by the image in the mirror stage.
Rene Magritte
Magritte’s painting breaks this seamless and secure connection the subject assumes between self and image by bringing back the materiality of the mirror into the foreground. The mirror in Not to be Reproduced stops being an inert reflective surface between the subject and his image, and becomes visible through the act of mis-projection.[1] The mirror in the painting continues to reflect but severs the presumed correspondence between self and image by claiming agency. This is crucial in the context of the painting as it was a commissioned portrait of a ‘real’ man. In this sense, the painting disturbs the whole set of meanings and viewing practices associated with a portrait: it declines to represent the subject of portrait like a mirror by presenting the mirror itself as not corresponding to the real individual being painted, producing a disturbing effect on the spectator.

Mirrors of Modernity
The mirror is one of the finest artefacts modernity has invented. Mirrors have been available since antiquity, but their functions and characteristics were different from modern mirrors. The ancient mirrors were made of metal plates, often very small. Bigger ones were developed later to adorn the walls of royal palaces, indicating social status and power. It was during the Renaissance that mercury-coated mirrors started being manufactured,[2] and the technique was perfected by the 16th century. Although metal-coated glass mirrors had been available since the first century CE, it was only in the late mediaeval period that accuracy in reflecting an object was attained. By the 17th century, mirrors became commonplace in Europe, albeit expensive owing to their complex manufacturing process.[3] 
Venus with a Mirror
(Fontainebleau School, 16th century),
Oil on Canvas
It was around the early modern period that the mirror started losing its magical capabilities and ritualistic functions. It became ‘secular’ and ‘rational’, a process accentuated by the emergence of optics as a scientific discipline in the 17th century followed by the massive growth of the mirror-manufacturing industry in Europe (Pendergrast 2007, p. 3). By the 19th century, a new chemical process was invented to manufacture the cheaper, metallic silver-coated mirror, thus making it an everyday household artefact. From its pre-modern existence as an object of divination, the mirror evolved to be a mundane reflective surface that projects images with greater clarity and finitude (ibid.) at which the modern individual stares to see him/herself. This process of self-examination is rational and scientific due to the ability of the mirror to reflect reality as it is, without distortion. This assurance offered by every modern mirror makes it disappear, while the image projected by it is understood as corresponding to the pre-constituted self. It is this portrait quality of the mirror and/or the mirror-like nature of the portrait that is disrupted in Magritte’s portraiture of Edward James.[4]

The Fear of Mis-projection

The ‘truthfulness’ and innocence of the mirror invoked by Sylvia Plath (see the opening quote) suppress the fear of its emergence as an irrational projecting surface of altered materiality,[5] capable of cutting the strings between self and image. This Lacanian moment of the Real that disrupts the symbolic can completely disorient the subject, and the fear of losing control of one’s own image in the mirror is increasingly a recurring theme in contemporary art, literature and cinema. The truthfulness of existence, achieved through the exactitude of spatial coordination between the real place the subject belongs to and its reflection in the mirror, when disrupted shatters the subject in unexpected ways, setting off a horrific experience as referred to in Nandita K.S.’s poem quoted in the beginning.[6] 
Cinema has the potential to be an unruly mirror which can overpower the spectator more than a canvas. The spectator’s status as being engulfed by the screen on which larger-than-life-size images are projected contributes to its ability to create more horror in comparison to a painting: if Not to be Reproduced was projected on a cinema screen as a moving/jerking frame, its effect would have been even more horrific. The fear of the loss of the presupposed correspondence between self (of the spectator/protagonist) and image is a central trope in contemporary horror films. In Below (David Twohy 2002), the Hollywood horror film set in the backdrop of the Second World War, a US submarine called Tiger Shark becomes haunted, leading to the killing of the cabin crew in its claustrophobic interiority. In a formidable sequence a crew member enters an empty cubicle in the submarine, where he realises that his image in the old mirror is a little slower in corresponding to his body movement. Later on, when he turns his face away from the mirror to the camera, his image also turns away but unexpectedly attains autonomy and turns back, staring at him. The disturbed lieutenant suddenly looks back but gets terrified by his image that has transformed into a dead man’s pale face. This autonomy claimed by the image in the mirror is more recurrent a theme in Mirrors (Alexandre Aja 2008), a horror film in which mirrors in a dilapidated building are possessed by evil spirits. There are numerous scenes in the film that presents horrific moments of agency claimed by mirrors, manifested in the subjugation and killing of the subject by its own image. For instance, the scene in which the protagonist’s sister, Angela, gets murdered: she looks at the mirror and gets ready for a bath, but when she moves away, her image in the mirror remains there, closely watching her getting into the tub. Then the image rips off its jaws, and the real Angela dies of excessive bleeding caused by the violent act performed by her image.

Screen grabs from Mirrors (2008)
To create horror, both films manipulate this basic instability in the self-and-image relationship that might lead to catastrophe and self annihilation. When the projecting screen goes out of control, and the projected image behaves in unexpected ways, it disorients the protagonist as well as the spectator. The image that goes awry disrupts their combined gaze.[7] This is the fear of mis-projection – the fear, which always exists in tandem with the unending fascination for the projected image, that the self would be subjugated by the image which hesitates to be mere reflection.
The fear of mis-projection depicted in these films turns our attention to the projecting surfaces in everyday life. In Mirrors, the camera pauses many times on reflective surfaces like mirrors, windowpanes and water, indicating the potential of all these surfaces to attain a new materiality, which becomes unbearable and horrific to the spectator. In this sense, the agency claimed by the projecting surfaces (including the cinema screen) suddenly disrupts the illusionary seamlessness the subject assumingly achieves with its reflection. The screen/mirror ceases to be a reflector, but becomes instead a material presence independent of the onlooker, and takes control over the situation by distorting and manipulating the image against the subject’s will. It is this sudden obscurity which manifests between the subject and its reflection due to the changed materiality of the mirror/screen that becomes spectral and invokes horror.

Technoscientific Mis-projections
Everyday life is suffused with reflective surfaces of different kinds, thanks to the technoscientific culture we live in. From mirrors to clocks to radars to Hubble’s space telescope[8], from mobile phones to television, cinema and computer screens, we engage with a wide variety of projecting surfaces in our quotidian life. In this sense, the entire technoscientific built environment we inhabit functions as a wide projecting screen that reflects our collective self. Like the mirror that achieved its materiality in the crucible of scientific and technological advancements and the industrial revolution, in tandem with the emergence of the modern self, these screens too shape our-selves. Our collective selves in contemporary culture are resultant of the assumed coherence accomplished through the mediation of these technoscientific gadgets and artefacts we use.
As in the case of seeing our reflection in the mirror, these everyday screens too concurrently evoke rapture and rupture – it is a narcissistic experience impregnated with the fear of self-immolation. Therefore, the changed materiality of these contemporary technoscientific projecting surfaces can be more threatening and suicidal than the horror invoked by unruly mirrors. This is the theme of Ringu (1998), a popular Japanese horror movie directed by Hideo Nakata,[9] in which the television screen becomes possessed. The evil spirit of Sadako, a teenage girl who was thrown into a well by her parents and thus killed, begins to take revenge through a video cassette circulated among cable TV-watching teenagers. Whoever watches the bizarre video receives a phone call and is killed seven days later by Sadako when she gets out of the television screen and walks towards the frightened victim. 

Screen grab from Ringu (1998)
Unlike in Mirror, in Ringu it is not the image of oneself that goes berserk. Instead, it is the act of viewing that initiates one’s destruction. The voyeuristic pleasure of the spectator is lost in the dreadful experience of the TV screen behaving in unanticipated ways, ceasing to be a truthful projecting surface, but becoming a medium through which the image of Sadako crosses the divide between the imaginary and the real. In this sense, the image stops being an image, instead claiming a physical presence in the very living space of the spectator, against his/her expectation of the television screen as an inert projecting surface that mirrors the real to provide voyeuristic pleasure. This is a reversal of the function of screen/mirror as capturing the image of the embodied objects/individuals. The image attains embodiment by crossing over from the imaginary to the real.[10] The coordination between the real and the imaginary is lost and the boundaries are collapsed, leading to the death of the spectator.[11] 
This unexpected change of the materiality of the screen is the central trope in the successful Hollywood film series, Final Destination (2000–2011), where death reclaims in bizarre ways the lives of those who have escaped it. This escape is resulted by the premonitions of one of the victims before the actual mishap. The same theme repeats in all the five films in the series, but each time in more shocking and sophisticated ways. While in Below, the technoscientific built environment of the submarine has become dangerous for its crew due to an attack from a German war ship, in Final Destination, the very technoscientific habitat attains agency and autonomy, methodically killing its targets in unexpected ways. Death follows its fugitives, who are comfortably engrossed in ordinary, everyday situations. For example, in the fifth film of the series (2011), the murder of Candice, a gymnast, is triggered by a screw that lands on the gymnastic bar from the ceiling, hurting another performer who falls down, kicking a packet of powder into the air. The powder blinds Candice who is practicing on the bar and loses control over her body. She is whirled up into the air and hits the floor upside down, which breaks her spine and kills her at once. Such a chain of events is frequently unleashed in the series by technoscientific spaces such as an aeroplane, a cinema hall, a sports stadium, a gymnasium, a spa, restaurants, posh houses and swimming pools, highways and bridges, elevators and escalators, an automated car washing unit, an amusement park, a shopping mall, an ophthalmology clinic: almost every single space we inhabit today. 

Candice's death in Final Destination-5 (2011)
The film series, as we have seen, generates horror by depicting these technoscientific spaces as claiming agency. In everyday life, these spaces are meant to be at our disposal. We make sense of our existence by skilfully manoeuvring these spaces with the help of gadgets and devices. Our embodiment in contemporary technoscientific culture is mediated through these paraphernalia, making us comfortably engrossed in these habitats. However, the potential of these spaces to claim independence and overpower us is always a horrific possibility, which films like Final Destination invoke.[12]   


In this essay, an attempt has been made to explore how the self is projected by the technoscientific material culture we are engrossed in. The reflection of the body on the mirror helps the infant understand itself as a coherent self. This could be a major reason behind the modern individual being charmed by the reflections/projections of a wide variety. However, this fascination always exists in tandem with the fear of mis-projection. When the projecting screen goes out of control, and the projected images of the self behave in unexpected ways, it creates horror.
While this theme is explored in literature and art, cinematic imagination portrays this fear of mis-projection in more nuanced ways, as we discussed. The fear of mis-projection gets more and more intensified and complicated with the advance of technology. The technoscientific spaces we construct are interactive and capable of extending our bodies with the aid of their sophisticated gadgets and devices, transforming us to Cyborgs (Haraway 2005). The pleasure of cyborgic existence, however, simultaneously invokes the fear of mis-projection.
The discussion on mis-projection raises further questions on how spectators of Indian cinema encounter the problem of mis-projection. Do we also share the same worries and anxieties in the everyday construction of our-selves with the post-industrial societies of the west? What are the functions of projecting surfaces in India? Do we really expect precision and truthfulness in our interaction with screens/mirrors? How are the tensions around mis-projection getting articulated in Indian popular cinema, art and literature? These questions are further complicated by the complex circulation and entanglement of ideas and texts across the global, national and local-specific cultural registers.

Author’s Note

I am grateful to Navaneetha Mokkil for her comments on an earlier draft of the paper. Thanks are also due to Deepali Khaire for the enthusiasm shared on the question of self and subjectivity.


[1] This is a recurring theme in many of his paintings. For example, see The False Mirror (1928), The Treachery of Images (1928–29), Eternal Evidence (1930), Representation (1937), Dangerous Liaisons (1963), The Looking Glass (1963) and The Two Mysteries (1966).
[2]  Nürnberg and Venice were reputed centres of manufacturing mirrors. http://www.mirrorresilvering.com/a_brief_history_of_mirrors.htm (last accessed 24 July 2012).
[3] See for details, http://www.designboom.com/history/mirror.html (last accessed 24 July 2012).
[4] Similarly, in his The Treachery of Images (1928–29), Magritte captioned a realist image of a tobacco pipe with the statement ‘this is not a pipe’. This disruption challenges the realist assumptions about the relationship between the real object and its artistic representation; but more importantly, the (dissolved) canvas suddenly reappears between the spectator and the image.
[5] The term ‘materiality’ refers to “different dimensions of experience, or dimensions beyond (or below) what we generally consider experience to be”, as suggested by Brown (2010, p. 49). Materiality is not superficially limited to the physical existence of an object (ibid.).
[6] Nandita K.S. (1969–1999), a bilingual poet from Kerala, committed suicide two years after scribbling this poem in her personal diary. She was deeply influenced by Sylvia Plath, as her poem quoted in the beginning suggests. Her poems are collected in the posthumous anthology, Nanditayude Kavithakal (Poems of Nandita, Papiyon, 2005, Calicut).
[7] See Mulvey 1975 for more on the spectator’s identification with the male protagonist on the screen.
[8] Radars and the Hubble’s space telescope are different kinds of mirrors that reflect wave lengths beyond the visible range of light in the spectrum (Pendergrast 2007, p. 2).
[9] The film was remade in Hollywood as The Ring (2002).
[10] In fantasy movies, mirrors/screens function as a window to the fantasy world, where the individual/spectator can cross over to. This is but highly pleasurable and thrilling, instead of being horrific. The Chronicles of Narnia (2005, 2008 and 2010) and Alice in Wonderland (2010) are examples.
[11] In Ringu, this changed materiality of the TV screen can be reversed only through an intense, collective practice of spectatorship enhanced by the (illegal) copying, circulation and watching of the video cassette.
[12] Eagle Eye (2008) is another movie that depicts this tension, where a supercomputer assumes autonomy, creating havoc.

Brown, Bill. “Materiality”. In (eds.) W J T Mitchell and Mark B N Hansen, Critical Terms for Media Studies (University of Chicago Press, 2010, Chicago) pp. 49–63.
Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century”.  In her Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (Free Association, 1991, London), pp. 149–81.
Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience”. In his Ecrits: A Selection, (trans.) Alan Sheridan (Routledge, 2001, London and New York), pp. 1–8.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. Screen, Vol. 16, No. 3, autumn (1975), pp. 6–18.
Pendergrast, Mark. “Mirror Mirror: A Historical and Psychological Overview”. In (ed.) Miranda Anderson, The Book of the Mirror: An Interdisciplinary Collection Exploring the Cultural Story of the Mirror (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007, Newcastle), pp. 1–13.

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