Thursday, October 2, 2008

Mirrors and Voices: Part 2, Reflecting the Fabricated

(...continued from yesterday...)

Reflecting the Fabricated

In Brian McHale’s essay “From Modernist to Postmodernist Fiction: Change of Dominant,” we are told that “the referent of ‘postmodernism,’ the thing to which the term claims to refer, does not exist. (4) Thus, the term is a construct, by the nature of its existence as a linguistic symbol with which to categorize or create, at the same time that the movement, style, or body of work (depending on which context the word is used in) that it is constructed in order to describe, its “referent,” as McHale calls it, is a construct as well. The term is a reflection of the ideas that it is created to describe, but neither the reflection or the source are any more “real” than the other. The categorical term can thus be seen as a mirror, where the representative reflection is limited and altered by the angle from which it is looked into and the confines of its frame. Therefore, since both the room that the mirror reflects and the mirror itself and the descriptive reflection are fabrications (as the mirror reflects things that are not themselves “real”) it is irrelevant to be concerned with the bias or credibility of the reflection, or its nature that lacks credibility as (or by the way of being) “merely” a reflection.

This image of representational reflection operates on several levels in dialogue about postmodernism. As McHale suggests, it applies to the movement’s nomenclature, with “postmodernism” the word serving as a mirror to reflect the room of “postmodernism” the thing. This image also applies to, more generally, the project of postmodernism in relation to conceptions of reality and representation. The mirror in this case is the text, art-form, or chosen form of representation in general, while the room is the world or setting being described, the “reality” being called into question. In this regard, McHale’s essay is in and of itself a postmodern text, merely using the linguistic representation of the movement itself as an example of the way that the postmodern conception of “reality” operates, most specifically its relative representational nature and eventual inevitable irrelevance.

Viewing postmodern representation as a mirror with reflection and subject, the subject itself being a reflection, provides an interesting correlation to Plato’s classic principle of Ideas versus Forms. The mirror provides the “Forms,” the representations, descriptions, and approximations, while the room that is reflected serves as the “Ideas” that, to Plato, are the “real” versions that the mirror reflects. Obviously, the wrench that postmodernism throws into Plato’s philosophy is that, when the ideas themselves are observed to be just as representational as the representations of them reflected in the mirror, the idea that the forms are subordinate to a more relevant set of ideas is torn down, leveling the playing-field and making the allegory of the cave appear more like a hall of mirrors with no definable source for the image, but rather a potentially endless series of reflections.

It is therefore no surprise that the mirror is a common symbol in postmodern works by authors such as Jorge Luis Borges. In Borges’ fiction, the mirror is most often placed in a room with fabricated “realistic” parameters. The room is constructed in such a way that it shares enough commonality with the “realities” understood by the readership that it serves as one layer of reflection, while the mirror is placed in order to reflect this reflection, to draw our attention to the limitless number of layers of possible potential-“realities” that can be caused by representing alternate representations, which, to the postmodernist, is the task that all artists are engaged in. The room is a representation, intentionally altered (or perhaps merely biased by the chosen angle of perception), of the “reality” that Borges understands, which is, in itself, a representation in several regards (perception, perspective, linguistic, etcetera), and the mirror provides a third layer of representation, which can be altered by the angle that it is perceived from, the angle that the light is received by it from, the limiting confines (bias) of the boundaries of its frame, etcetera. By way of the inclusion of this third layer of reflection, we are reminded of the representational biases and alterations of all other layers of reflection that led to this version of the image. The third visible layer of reflection directs the reader’s eye to the idea that the images’ sources are ambiguous, and possibly non-existent. Because it is understood that neither the reflection in the mirror or the image of the room that it reflects are “real,” neither the reflection nor the image are more or less relevant than the other, and biases, limitations, and angles of perception no longer have any effect on the readers’ perception of the “truthfulness” or “credibility.” By the same reasoning, therefore, as all layers of what we perceive as “reality” are subjective representations, Borges is using the mirror to demonstrate how the worlds that he creates in his stories are no less relevant or “real” than the ones that he or his reader lives in; Uqbar is no less relevant than Europe, Bioy is no less relevant than the reader, the author’s speculation about the room that the reader sits in no less relevant than the room that the reader himself perceives from his own sensory biases.

The mirror is thrust in the reader’s face on the very first page of Borges’ short-story collection, “Labyrinths.” The first tale in the book, “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” begins with a description of how a mirror (or, more specifically, a conversation about the conceptual value of the reflective properties of a mirror, in some ways much like this one) aids in the discovery of a fictitious world. The number of levels of “fictive” representation referenced by this symbol are nearly limitless, and staggering. Conceptually, this number is allowed to be so astoundingly infinite by the reflective nature of the mirror itself. The mirror’s ability to reflect (and an assumption that what it creates is “real,” as the heresiarch of Uqbar tells us that “mirrors and copulation are abominable, because they increase the number of men” [Borges 3]) is contemplated in an encyclopedia entry (a reflection/ representation) about a fictitious place (another reflection) created by fictitious characters as a sort of an experiment with the nature of representation (reflection), which is discovered by another set of fictional characters, who reside in the principle “reality” of the piece, which is a reflection of the “reality” that Borges assumes for his readers, which is a reflection of his own “reality,” which only he can represent with whatever sort of biases or angles that he chooses and is the product of the representation of his sensory, linguistic, and cultural perceptions, among other things (all of which are reflections or subjective representations). The mirror offers no way of identifying the source of the reflections, demonstrating the truth of the comment by the “fictitious” heresiarch of Uqbar that the men reflected in the mirror are just as “real” as the men that they reflect, thus suggesting that the heresiarch, although separated by at least four layers of reflection, is no less “real” or “credible” of a relater of information or “truth” than Borges himself is. By this mirror, therefore, Borges demonstrates the postmodern project (and the meaning of the term and artistic movement itself) that he seems to agree with McHale on, that “the referent… the thing to which the term claims to refer, does not exist.” Contrary to the beliefs of Plato, postmodernism asserts that there is no difference between Ideas and Forms, the reflection is not less “real” than the reflected.

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