We’re all in this together – right?

How can the people who constitute a radical space of difference, an entirely different reality, be artistically represented? Laurie Waller and Elvia Vasconcelos explain the use of mirrors when artistically representing the subaltern.
Laurie Waller
5 October 2010


Don Juan: you know the way to the frontier of hell and heaven. Be good enough to direct me.

The Statue: Oh, the frontier is only the difference between two ways of looking at things.

George Bernard Shaw – From Man and Superman (1903)


…we put aside our differences to work together in the national interest

David Cameron and Nick Clegg (2010)


There are always two ways of looking at things. The meanings we give to things can always be different. A difference is always made and we all want to make a difference. In our individualism we celebrate our differences. We are all indivisible and unique!

But all this focus on difference is distracting. Are we not really all the same? Doesn’t the very possibility of our difference as individuals only result from our shared humanity, from similarity? We are only individual because fundamentally we’re all in this together – right?

So, our difference first presupposes similarity. The meaning of a thing can only differ if we tacitly accept and agree on the nature of the thing itself. We contentedly say “let’s agree to disagree” and comfort ourselves that our differences are really only superficial because at base we share the same world, the same reality.

The subaltern, then, is the challenge to this cosy settlement. Can a more radical “space of difference” exist: one that doesn’t assume a similar base, nature, humanity, world, or even reality?

As authors we confess immediately that we have no idea what the subaltern is. Even among those who probably use the term in everyday conversation (usually post-colonial theorists) there’s little agreement about how to define the subaltern. But, its contested definition doesn’t stop the subaltern being deployed as a concept. Most often the subaltern is deployed to question the status of our own knowledge about the world since the colonial encounter. It challenges us to define who we are and our relationship (politically, historically, etc) to what we study.

But, in seeking to represent the subaltern we risk colonising its radical space of difference by imposing onto it our own ways of thinking and organising the world. “Take us to your chief” demanded the early colonial explorers, and in due course a chief was found and Western forms of organisation imposed and eventually internalised. For many theorists the subaltern induces a crisis of confidence in their purpose: “who am I to talk about the subaltern?”

In its conceptual deployment the subaltern then becomes a surface that reflects our world-view back to us, forcing us to situate it and interrogate how we arrived at it. Simple and coherent narratives, such as Marxist accounts of history, are suddenly refracted into multiple conflicts of radically different natures (e.g. who’s history? what is historical knowledge? is Eurocentrism inevitable?). If we accept the proposition of radical difference, then we cannot hope to access, represent or understand the subaltern on its own terms. Are we then reduced to approaching radical difference as simply negation of ourselves (e.g. not Western, not Capitalist)?

We propose the metaphor of the mirror – a visual rather than analytic concept – as a way to open up the possibilities of our encounter with radical difference. Mirrors are not simply passive reflectors of projections but are dynamic surfaces that actively constitute their subjects and objects. This is why, for example, mirrors and other reflective surfaces play an important role in Amazonian shamanism – when light hits them they reveal the luminous intensity and infinite multiplicity of the spirits that are otherwise invisible. Outside the Amazon context, the ability of the mirror to multiply infinitely and dazzle with its brilliance is often too intense; a house of mirrors is designed to disorientate and confuse, the reflective glare of the sun is countered with dark glasses.

The primary use of the mirror in the West is as a bridge between the radically distinct internal world of the subject and the external world out “out there”. By looking in the mirror the view from inside confronts the view from outside and two worlds appear momentarily resolved. Distinctions are erased, boundaries collapse: a temporary realisation of the liberal dream. But this moment of resolution is destroyed as the gaze of the external self is thrown back into the internal subject in an ongoing and irresolvable reflective movement, reinforcing the divide that we will later concede was there all along. An inside will always produce an outside.

The mirror challenges our commonsense topographic notion of the image – as the relationship between a passive surface and an active viewer – because it does not present the viewer with an image but instead introduces a reflective movement between subject and object. Surrealist artist Magritte’s Not to be reproduce is a painting of the back-view of a man looking into a mirror. But, instead of the mirror presenting the man’s front-view as we would expect, the mirror reflects back the back-view of the man which the observer of the painting sees. The observer is destablised as they move between subject and object becoming both the mirror to the mirror and the observer in between. When we look in the mirror we are not presented with our external image but an image of our external self-image (which we hold internally). An image of an image.

The image of the image is paradoxically both non-iconic and non-visual. The image of the image is dynamic; it opens up a reflective movement that both constitutes and destabilises the image we see. As soon as it is constituted, the image of the image is immediately thrown back into the image itself before unfolding into a new image of the image: an ongoing folding and unfolding. This is the never-ending reflective movement between the image and the image of the image. It isn’t simply a movement back and forth along a linear plane but is continually refracted, thereby multiplying the planes on which the movement extends. The image of the image is the dynamism of the subaltern to make and remake itself, to evade definition and to make subject into object into subject ad infinitum.

The subaltern then is a concept that, once deployed, will immediately open up a reflective movement which never ends and which can never be closed down but instead continually splinters in new directions and new dimensions. It fills us with both doubt and certainty. But, any resolution in favour of either certain doubt or doubtless certainty obliterates the space of radical difference that induced it, destroying the subaltern. Resolution is an attempt to remove the very possibility of the subaltern and its potential brilliance and luminosity from the world. We may try our best to forget about otherworldly spirits in the West, but when we look in the mirror we, like the Amazonian shamans, play with the barriers between worlds and the extensions of ourselves. We are not so modern.

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