Monday, June 25, 2018

Losing your reflection

When in Offenbach’s opera “The Tales of Hoffmann”, Hoffmann falls in love with Giuletta, the latter asks for his reflection so that “He will always be with her”. Not knowing that on her turn Giuletta is under the influence of the sinister Capitaine Dapertutto, Hoffmann naively gives her what she asked for, but when he looks in a mirror and sees that his reflection has gone, he realizes that he has not only lost his soul and self image, but that he lost his identity. Since Giuletta has hand over Hoffmann’s reflection to her master, Hoffmann’s identity and so his life is now in Departutto’s hands.
For Hoffmann it’s a dream and when he wakes up he realizes that his relationship with Giuletta is symbolic for his relationship with his real love Stella, and that he must break with her. But is this tale of Hoffmann not more than a story that is good by way of entertainment in a book or the libretto of an opera?
Take a mirror and look in it. What do you see? You think you see yourself as you are, that you see an objective image of yourself. However, on a Dutch website I found that less than half of the Dutch women are not satisfied with their reflections. They have too many wrinkles, or so they think. They are too thick, or so they think. Etc. You know what I mean. The same website says that 60% of all women in the world feel unhappy, insecure or anxious when they look in the mirror. How can it happen? The example illustrates that apparently it is not because you see an objective image in the mirror. You don’t see simply yourself in the mirror but you see there your Self. The reflection has a meaning for you: It shows who you Are.
A century ago the American sociologist Charles Cooley developed the concept of looking glass self. It involves the idea that your self-image arises in an interaction between how you see yourself and how others see you. First, so Cooley, you develop an image of how you think that others see you. Then you interpret how you think that others judge you (positively, negatively or otherwise). Third, on the basis of these processes you judge yourself: You feel pride, embarrassment, chagrin, or whatever it maybe. So your self-image develops. The judgments on which it is based need not be correct, but if you don’t know that it is false, you behave according to your self-image. For instance, when looking in a mirror, you see only that you have wrinkles, if they are judged important in society (otherwise you wouldn’t give attention to them) and you think that others see them on your face and that they think that you look old because of them. You feel insecure because of that, because present (Western) society says that being young is better. So you want to do something about it. Wrinkles apparently belong to your image and to your identity (in your view), and you want to change that. But by doing so, in fact you do what Hoffmann did. The case of wrinkles is just a little example, but in order “to belong to it” (to society, to the group of people around you that you consider relevant to you) people increasingly adapt their self images to what they see as how these images “must” be. Acting that way, you deliver your identity to others and let them make and manipulate your identity. (Another option would be to follow your own principles and have the relevant others take you as you are; see my blog
But your reflection, and with that your Self, is not only in a mirror. It is everywhere, certainly nowadays, and it is caught everywhere. Take the social media. Look around in a train, in a restaurant, even during a break in the opera: People are so longing for contact, that at every dull moment they take their smartphones and check their apps and social media. Messaging, liking, chatting with our “friends” have become part of us. And just for fear of losing our identity we give it away. We are prepared to give any information – sometimes the most intimate information – to our preferred social media in order to avoid that the contact is broken off, including such personal information as private telephone numbers. “Give it to us, it’s safe with us”, the social media say. But behind your back – or openly – they use your private data for their malicious or sometimes a bit less malicious aims, and influence your behaviour. The recent abuse of telephone numbers given to Facebook is a case in point. We do like Hoffmann in his dream who gave his reflection to Giuletta but in fact gave his identity to Dapertutto, if not to Faust.

- John F. Cuber, Sociology. A Synopsis of Principles. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1963; pp. 253-254.

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