Looking in the mirror, we have the chance to see ourselves as others see us. Experiments show children taking fewer sweets from a bowl placed in front of a mirror because their own reflection reminds them not to be greedy. They become ‘self’-conscious. Our plays and films hold the mirror up to nature, letting us see how we really are from a third person perspective. But when Alice passes through the looking glass, she finds a distorted, fantastical version of reality on the other side. Recent films encourage us to follow Alice through the glass. Purporting to reflect reality, they provide an illusion of self-consciousness at the same time as escape into fantasy. In this false self-consciousness, we know the consequences of our actions, but are allowed to maintain the fantasy that they will not happen.
‘Our plays and films hold the mirror up to nature, letting us see how we really are from a third person perspective’
In the film Precious, an abused, overweight teenager with two children achieves redemption and escapes the clutches of an evil mother. Ostensibly, the film holds up the mirror to child abuse and poverty. Yet, when her hard working high school headmistress engineers a fresh start she takes us through the mirror to a fantasy reflection of that world. Precious’s fresh start is in a special class with an inspirational, beautiful teacher: she has her second child in a clean hospital room with plenty of space for her friends to come and hang out: she gets counselling from a wise, thoughtful – and yes, young and attractive – woman at the Citizens Advice bureau who confronts the mother in the film’s dénouement.
Society pulls out all the stops for Precious, but it is up to her not to succumb, not to perpetuate the cycle of abuse and not to abuse the state through wilful welfare dependency. The film closes as Precious walks free, carrying her kids into the crowd. Walking out of the film back through the mirror into the real world, she will be utterly ill equipped to raise them. The mythically nurturing state will indeed enforce a clear answer to the question “Who’s responsible?”: it’s up to you, Precious. You’re on your own now. Society holds the mirror up to itself, knows that it fails 99 out of 100 Precious’s, but stays on the other side of the mirror where individual redemption relieves society of responsibility.
The parallel of reality and fantasy is the central structure of the film Avatar. Ostensibly, the film delivers a clear Malthusian message. Humanity is destroying the planet through excessive consumption and neglect of the natural environment. The good guys are the indigenous aliens (read blue Native Americans) and the bad guys are the capitalist invaders (white Europeans). A few of the invaders are able to pass through the looking glass to the prelapsarian world beyond. The main protagonist is a crippled marine. On the other side, as one of the blue aliens, he is redeemed and recovers his powers: he helps the locals expel the invaders and elects to stay permanently.
Watching, we are able to pretend that we are conscious of what we are doing to the planet. But, by following him through the looking glass we can pretend that it is not actually us destroying Eden. We do not identify ourselves as the dishevelled crowd herded into their spaceships, forced to return to a now brown Earth at the end of the film.
‘Expect more of this false self-consciousness. More of this having our cake and eating it’
Expect more of this false self-consciousness. More of this having our cake and eating it. As individuals we are adept at recognising our virtues, of trumpeting our successes; and we are just as good at wishing away our vices and placing the blame for our failures on others. As a society, we do the same. Democracy intensifies this process. Our politicians must flatter us to win our votes; must promise us more hospitals without asking us to accept the cost. Our films must tell us that we do look after the disadvantaged like Precious: so that those that do not redeem themselves can be held responsible for their own fate. Our debates over climate change will continue to reassure us that we are playing our part, even as we blame others for not playing their’s.
As an undergraduate I was fortunate to have tutorials with Mary Warnock, looking at Plato. I read Karl Popper’s criticism of the false consciousness of the shadows in Plato’s cave and also of Marx’ theory of false consciousness. For Popper, these critiques of human reason inevitably led to Plato and Marx’ totalitarian prescriptions. Today the field has been set for the same arguments again. This modern false self-consciousness is clearly pernicious, but who has the right to tell people what to think?