Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction is a complex read, to say the least. While I am sure author Anthony Elliot is an expert in social theory, his ability to express concepts in a succinct, simple manner is wretched. His wordy, verbose statements sent my thoughts into a tailspin; however, if I were reading this over several weeks, perhaps I would have more of an appreciation for his research and ability to intertwine, intricately, so many theories from across history.
Consistent with my personality, I did find a bit of delight in reading about Jacques Lacan’s theory and his metaphor of the mirror. One quote in particular I pondered for many minutes was “The mirror provides a subject with relief from the experience of fragmentation by granting an illusory sense of bodily unity through its reflecting surface.”
I had to read it several times to begin to get a sense of what Elliot is saying. My impression is that the image we see in the mirror may not really say much about who we are looking at. I often look in the mirror and think to myself, “That’s not really how I would imagine I would look based on who’s inside here.” But, I agree that without seeing such an image in the mirror, “me” is so complicated and multifaceted that some might not be able to develop a sense of unity or identity. I think, in my case, I do have an impression of a unified person (albeit quirky in many ways), and I could function just fine without seeing an image of bodily unity in the mirror.
When I think about this further, I believe it is not a bodily fragmentation we possess; instead it may, in fact, be a mental fragmentation. As Lucan went on to say, it is in and through a reflecting surface that the subject narcissistically invests in self-image. I agree with this completely. Looking in a mirror, seeing our respective images, requires each of us to evaluate our good attributes and our not so good attributes. This, in my opinion, lends itself toward noticing (and being attracted to) our good features, and thus fostering narcissism.
For Lacan, the mirror provides a sense of psychological unity and cohesion, while in reality it distorts and deforms the self. “In a word, the mirror lies! The reflecting image, because it is outside and other, leads one to misrecognize himself: the image yielded up by the mirror looks pleasingly unified and gratifyingly alluring, but the reality is that the mirror is just an image. The image is not in reality the subject.”
This immediately brought to mind the phenomenon of “Reality TV.” While it may be a reality for those living it at the time, it is a truncated reality, and perhaps not an example of normality. Indeed the summary questions at the end of the chapter alluded to this, as well. Lacan believed that “theoretical discourse must reflect the distortions of the unconscious in order to engage with both the practical and poetic textures of who we are as human beings.” So, considering reality TV in the context of the above, the depiction of social situations in such programs is much like the less than accurate reflection in the mirror. The separate personalities presented in such programs, and their interactions, cannot actually say anything meaningful about our society or our social discourse. Society is too complex and too blessed with diversity to be accurately reflected in these programs. Setting aside the entertainment aspects (where the situations are depicted inaccurately for shock or entertainment value), we each see and interpret a reality TV show through our own eyes and in light of our individual experiences and values. Some might see an episode of Jerry Springer and be utterly appalled and others might watch the same show and see last Thanksgiving’s family reunion.
In all situations where we, as individuals or communities, are reflected or summarized in any manner, such reflections will always fall short of the truth. We each perceive situations, attributes and values differently according to the “practical and poetic textures of who we are.” Just as the mirror cannot capture all of the beauty and complexity that makes each of us the unique person that we are, our perception of any person or situation from the outside does not necessarily represent the reality of who or what we are observing.
Elliott, Anthony. Contemporary Social Issues: An Introduction. New York, NY: Routledge, 2009.