Shadows lurk like clouds across the moon as we recollect the recent memories of New Year’s festivities. Sooner or later, amidst the frolicking and laughter, the ominous questions arose, “Have you made any resolutions?” It was as though Champagne or Canada Dry bubbles froze in mid-ascent as gaiety met psycho-social inquisition.
Queries regarding New Years’ Resolutions bear implicit assumptions that our subjectivity must embody a process of perpetual improvement. One aspect in particular projects this ethos of life as a ceaseless struggle: the body. Our homoeostatic bags of water, our mortal coil if we favour Shakespeare, tends to receive special attention in the month of January. And, now that the festivities have receded over the horizon of our mind, it’s time to consider how we appear to ourselves in our own mind’s eye and ask that eternal question, “Should I resolve to change?”
If we answer the question of resolutions in the negative, folks may brush us off as if to say “Aw, they weren’t one to try and improve anyway.” But whatever, just do you, right? Even if they aren’t thinking that you’re a slob about assessing your personal ontological progress they’ll happily proceed to recount their own intrepid attempts at alteration. Meanwhile, if our answer is ‘yes’ then their eyes may widen, their pupils may dilate, and an existential explanation may be required. Who will the new you be? Re-invention does carry a certain intrigue.
Fruitful though these queries are for understanding the processes of our self, the truth is that our being is perpetually in progress, whether we actively try to affect its development or not. We’re always evolving as organisms in a state of perpetual morph. It’s up to us whether we add a Sisyphean element to the proceedings by amending our ordinary evolution with extraordinary effort requiring resolution. (Don’t forget, a resolution is usually the end of a deliberative process; a completion as much or more than a beginning. Resolutions are arrived at and then departed from).
Sometimes the caverns, caves, and recesses of our mind are, themselves, the focus of our transmogrification efforts. We might endeavour to learn and study better or differently, for instance. Usually, though, our body is the site of our purported reformation and reconstruction; it’s not brain surgery, after all.
Or is it? Let us focus on this bodily emphasis and the mental gymnastics implied: whenever we see ourselves we see not only what reflects onto our cornea but also what our mental expectations project onto our beings as we live in the world. This process began when we were very young and continues in our minds both consciously and unconsciously. The seminal film studies philosopher, Laura Mulvey, notes that our “unconscious is structured like a language” such that each part of our body comes to signify a state of physical health and moral correctness (Mulvey, 59). Belly too prominent? Tail end too bulbous? Whether we’re aware of it or not, culture has infiltrated what we see in the mirror and how we feel about it.
Mulvey elaborates how we achieve an age in childhood where we learned to recognize ourselves in a mirror: “They imagine their mirror image to be more complete, more perfect than they experience in their own body. Recognition is thus overlaid with misrecognition: the image recognized is conceived as the reflected body of the self, but its misrecognition as superior projects this body outside itself as an ideal ego, the alienated subject which, re-introjected as an ego ideal, prepares the way for identification with others in the future. The mirror moment predates language for the child.” (Mulvey 61).
What we see when we see ourselves reflects fidelity to an imaginary self-image, then. One that is, appropriate to our current demographic incarnation. Hence the phrase “oh God, I look so old,” applies to folks in one demographic and not in another. Those in their early 20s probably embrace looking older, wiser, and more suave. Self-image thus declines as the years pass and physical reality takes over. It’d seem that we only briefly inhabit a window of being where we’re “something to see”, to quote on old Bob Seger song (Seger, online). Life may come to appear as a process of unravelling, and with age in years (not to mention in world-weariness) comes a certain stolid awareness of bodily decline. Mirrors thus reflect the ideology of our youthful self-image; not because they compose chemically knowable composites of material in the vulgar scientific sense, but because everything we see in a mirror demarcates and positions us according to its own insouciantly-stable position on a wall.
Resolutions to re-appropriate early incarnations of ourselves, real or imaginary, find traditional expression in the ritual of New Year’s resolutions. Mirrors induce a sense of timelessness and, anthropologically speaking, are a reminder of why members of some cultures famously feared being photographed. Feared, that is, prior to the universalization of presently globalized technology that purports to record what’s there. Be they mirrors or photographs, lenses ask us to see surfaces in terms of a voyeuristic element of inspection. Some make peace with what they see and others resolve to change their image.
If we attempt to alter our shape through New Years regimes of physical alteration, we’ll probably want to visually chart our progress. To this end Mulvey states, following Jacques Lacan, that “the mirror is crucial for the constitution of the ego” and, as such, it plays into our unconscious, which, it bears repeating, is “structured like a language” of signs and symbols that exist to our conscious mind only in translation (Mulvey, 60 & 59). Unbeknownst to us, what’s taken for granted as one thing may represent something else. Thus, discourses of getting in shape gloss over the hidden power of guilt implanted in us at a deep, and deeply fertile, level.
Next week we’ll shine some light on the nature of our body and its image as a part of the wider lens of the cultural imaginary. New Year’s Resolutions aren’t a matter of questioning who we want to be; they also open inquiry into what it is that makes our selves at their most fundamental level. Are we what we see and how will we be able to trust that we are really seeing ourselves?
Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. In Feminist Film Theory: A Reader. (1999). Sue Thornham, Ed. New York: New York University Press.
Jason Hazel-rah Sullivan is a Masters of Integrated Studies student who loves engaging in discourse while working in the sunny orchards and forests of the Okanagan.