Mirrors: Suspension of Presence

Welcome to day 4 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society.  (More about heterotopias and liminal spaces.)  Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.


There’s a funny phenomenon in real estate photos, where the person photographing the rooms unintentionally photographs themselves in a mirror, usually in the bathroom. In this way, realtors superimpose themselves, the marketer, onto the home they are marketing, which is not their home, not a space where they would usually appear in the mirror, except for the fact that they are selling this home for someone else. They don’t belong here but they are now integral to the space, as though they were the inhabitant of the house. (Check out Bad MLS Photos, especially the series I’m Looking for the Agent in the Mirror – definitely “asking him to change his ways.” Also, Stupid Selfies at Terrible Real Estate Agent Photos, which I think says it all.)

The same thing happens when I take photos of motel and hotel rooms. I try to avoid it, except when I am actually trying to do it, but occasionally I capture a little of me, someone else, or some luggage reflected.

part of me in the mirror, Olde Tavern Motel, Orleans, Cape Cod, 1 Nov. 2016

The motel remains, and I am a fleeting glimpse caught forever in its mirror. If the mirror weren’t there, would I remain? Where is my actual presence in that moment?

friends reflected in ornate mirror in Cylburn Mansion, Baltimore, MD, March 2014


In Nataly Tcherepashenets’ book Place and Displacement in the Narrative Worlds of Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar (2007), she talks about Foucault’s “motif of the mirror … which questions ‘real’/’fictional’ place opposition and where the concepts of utopia and heterotopia converge. … [It’s] where the very notions of linearity and presence are suspended.” She compares “the City” in Cortázar’s novel 62: Modelo para armar (1968; in English, 62: The Model Kit) — characterised as “a heterotopian zone, constructed and deconstructed at the same time” — to a mirror: “[Juan] has an impression that … a mirror of space and a mirror of time had coincided at a point of unbearable and most fleeting reality before it left me alone again, with so much intelligence, with so much before and after and so much in front and in back” and she continues “[t]he functioning of the City turns out to be that of a mirror where heterotopia, utopia and dystopia converge. It accumulates ‘real’ (recognizable) spaces and at the same time appears to be an overtly imaginary construct.” In this way, as Danielle Manning puts it in her article (Re)visioning Utopia: The Function of Mirrors and Reflection in Seventeenth-Century Painting, the mirror has the “ability to destabilize the seemingly straightforward transcription of real space.”  The mirror both includes and excludes real objects: they appear as images in the mirror but are not really “allowed” in the mirror, instead remaining external it. Where are they?

my sister in a Fiat rental car at the beach this summer

The “intelligence” Juan describes seems to me to be a kind of revelation or realisation, which comes from his sense of “so much before and after,” the convergence of eternity — past, present, future — in the never-ending refraction of light in a mirror, with him at the center. Yet the mirror, like “the City” in the novel, is a real place, the mirror possibly made in a Chinese factory and transported across oceans on a container ship to be placed in, perhaps, this particular home or motel. It’s a real object but its significance is wholly in its function of reflecting other objects, and those reflections aren’t “real” but are “image-inary.”


An exhibition for the Singapore Biennale (2016-2017), “An Atlas of Mirrors: At Once Many Worlds,” includes Harumi Yukutake’s Paracosmos (2016), which was apparently inspired in part by Foucault’s thoughts on mirrors:

Paracosmos [click to see image] propels the viewer into a parallel world – a space of otherness that is recognisable but unfamiliar. … [T]he ‘membrane’ of hand-cut mirrors dissolves the definition between foreground and background by dissipating the single image into an explosion of reflections. A space of simultaneity, and eternally liminal, the mirror was core to philosopher Michel Foucault’s concept of the heterotopia as a kind of zone that could encompass other sites. Yet munificence can also be deceptive, and like a mirror that throws a warped or skewed reflection, heterotopias can disturb and distort the spaces held in their embrace. The mirror reveals itself as a paradoxical device: able to hold every other image by having no inherent image, it can enfold an ‘everywhere’ by being a ‘nowhere’ in itself.”

The mirror is a perfect “placeless place”: the mirror itself is empty of imagery, yet that’s where accurate representations of real objects are found.


Looking at oneself in a mirror, it’s hard not to experience, on some level (maybe a subconscious one), both a reassuring sense of our own solid presence and a disquieting sense of our fleeting impermanence. The mirror suggests that besides the “real” me, there is another me, out of body, external. And that reflected, external me doesn’t correspond perfectly with the real me. The copy of me isn’t me, but it’s what everyone else, for whom the mirror stands in, sees as me.


Philippe Rochat and Dan Zahavi, in their (pdf) article “The uncanny mirror: A re-framing of mirror self-experience” in Consciousness and Cognition (Feb. 2010), mention in the introduction “the wariness typically associated with mirror self-experience” and French phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s description of  “the profoundly unsettling encounter with one’s specular double.”  Rochat and Zahavi share the story of an isolated tribe living in the Papuan plateau, who had never seen their own reflections in anything natural or constructed (no slate, no metallic surfaces, only murky rivers); an anthropologist brings a mirror to their tribe and they look into it: “They were paralyzed: after their first startled response – covering their mouths and ducking their heads – they stood transfixed, staring at their images, only their stomach muscles betraying great tension. Like Narcissus, they were left numb, totally fascinated by their own reflections.”

It’s easy to forget, especially in this age of selfies, that without mirrors, reflective glass, and cameras (or clear reflections in water, rock, etc.), we would not know what our own face looks like, we would never see the gestalt of our body in one image.


The authors go on to discuss the uncanniness of mirrors, as a “source of visual enhancement as well as illusory perceptions. …. Mirrors are visually trickery because they give perceivers an illusion of transparency, the exact opposite of what they are in their physical reality. ” They raise Merleau-Ponty’s argument that for a child who first sees its whole body in a mirror or other clear reflective surface, “this new unifying appearance of the body” is an objectification:

“For the child to recognize the specular image as its own is for it to become a spectator of itself. … At the same time that the image makes possible the knowledge of oneself, it makes possible a sort of alienation. I am no longer what I felt myself, immediately, to be; I am that image of myself that is offered by the mirror. To use Dr. Lacan’s terms, I am ‘captured, caught up’ by my spatial image. Thereupon I leave the reality of my lived me in order to refer myself constantly to the ideal, fictitious, or imaginary me, of which the specular image is the first outline. In this sense I am torn from myself, and the image in the mirror prepares me for another still more serious alienation, which will be the alienation by others. For others have only an exterior image of me, which is analogous to the one seen in the mirror.”

In other words, as they continue,

“Merleau-Ponty’s central idea is that mirror self-recognition exemplifies a troubled form of self-knowledge.  … The enigmatic and uncanny character of the specular image is precisely due to this intermingling of self and other. It is me that I see in mirror, but the me I see has not quite the same familiarity and immediacy as the me I know from inner experience. The me I see in the mirror is distant and yet close, it is felt as another, and yet as myself.”

These intermingled feelings — of knowing oneself while being alienated from oneself, of self as both object and spectator, of recognising oneself intimately yet feeling distant from self, of feeling the image to be eternally situated and at the same time deeply transitory — points to the experience of ambiguity and contradiction inherent in heterotopias.

And looking at photos of mirrored images all the more ambiguous, unsettling, disorienting. This was 20 years ago. For a moment. That never ends.



“I suspected that what happens in hotel rooms rarely lasts outside of them. I suspected that when something was a beginning and an ending at the same time, that meant it could only exist in the present.”  — David Levithan


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