It is strange that self-knowledge should be such an elusive thing, since we all run after it, and we all attempt to understand ourselves. In many cases we are quite fallible in pursuing the goal of self-understanding, because we resort to self-defence, or self-justification, or self-exculpation, and this last, shifting the blame to somebody else, is particularly common. So we do find it difficult to analyse ourselves impartially and scientifically, and the task of self-contemplation is particularly difficult. We are usually drawn off into evasions and side issues.
Contemporary health norms encourage us to focus on expressing ourselves, and since Freud the ideal of mental health is thought to be giving vent to our feelings or articulating what is troubling us: we must do this lest it remain buried, and turn into something else, like an obsession or a perversion. Despite this emphasis on self-expression we also encourage self-analysis, through various forms of psychology, psychoanalysis and counselling. So, the task of self-understanding is indeed part of our culture.
Human beings want to look at their own image – their physical image – and this seems to be a deep thirst in the human consciousness. The ability to see one’s image clearly in a mirror is a relatively recent acquisition in Western history: there were mirrors in antiquity and they were much used, but they were very crude and conveyed only a distorted image of oneself. So much so that users of such mirrors began to see them as giving some special message about the shape of one’s future, or one’s own persona: this was called catoptromancy, and mirrors were used in magic and divination. This could only happen because they were distorted: were they “true” there could have been no mystery. The best way to see oneself was in a still bowl of water.
We have discussed this in the article ‘Plato versus Lacan on the Matter of Self-Knowledge’1: but it could be surmised that the condition of Narcissus, who desired to see his image in the still waters of a pond, was not exceptional or in any way psychologically to be singled out, but was the very essence of the human condition in general. We humans did then desire to see our own image, and of course the myth of Narcissus had its origins at a time when this was really not possible. This was a craving which went unsatisfied.
In the 17th century there were great technological advances in the development of mirrors, particularly in Paris through the Saint Gobain company, and for the first time the middle-classes could buy a mirror in which they could see a more or less faithful representation of themselves. The wonderful book by Sabine Melchior-Bonnet, The Mirror: A History, details the history and social events surrounding the development of this new technology. For the first time people could see themselves. This was new.
But since then we have seen the development of the camera, which then quickly developed the capacity for one to take photos of oneself: cameras in the 1950s allowed one to press a timer and rush to the appropriate spot within a few seconds for an early version of the selfie: then, astonishingly, cameras became smaller and smaller and were inserted into mobile phones, and now no encounter or social gathering is complete without a selfie of oneself and others, all looking happy. We want to look happy in our self-images at the present time: it was not always so in photographs. No plate of food escapes unscathed either.
So self-photography has become ubiquitous, as has the ability to touch up the photos and to make us look more like the image we want, rather than what we actually are. But we suspend disbelief and satisfy ourselves with these adjusted self-images. This last is a very important point in narcissism generally, that is that we manufacture an image which is not quite true or identical with our real selves, but we suspend disbelief so that we are able to accept this as the real us.
This is all quite recent: we don’t know the effects of it yet, as we are living it out; the satisfaction of an ancient thirst, the desire to see oneself.
Plato suggested that we see ourselves through the eyes of other people, and that the image which they send back to us is the way we learn about ourselves. He pointed out that the pupil of the other person’s eye is something of a mirror, and that if we peer into it we can see ourselves: he suggests that this is the real way of self-perception, that we see and understand ourselves through the picture that the other person has of us.
Lacan greatly stressed the importance of mirrors in gaining self-understanding – how could he not, living in Paris and living with the history and culture of mirrors in the Palais of Versailles and elsewhere – and he seems to say something different from Plato, in that he seems to advocate a somewhat solipsistic self-understanding growing from one’s own contemplation of oneself in a mirror, outside any cultural context, or outside the presence of the other. This is the mirror phase. However this solo self-perception seems to dissolve in his later work, and he does emphasise the importance of self-knowledge amid, and in the context of, others.
Hence the theme of this book: how does otherness contribute to our own self-understanding, otherness in cultural terms, linguistic terms, national terms, or racial terms. And there is the otherness present in our own national group, in our close family circle, and then with others who have had nothing to do with our family circle, and who often provide an alternative perception through the mirror of their own eyes.
There is a gap in self-understanding when the perception of the other does not match our own self-perception or self-understanding, and how that gap is bridged, and how we handle that particular confrontation, the confrontation between our own self-perception, and the perception which others have of us, is part of the story of this book. Those gaps gradually close over time, and over multiple social experiences. What follows are the stories of those gaps and how they are bridged: we need others to know ourselves.
Bond University, Australia