Silvered Screens: Self in Cinema

When you look in the mirror in the morning, do you see the same self that you’ve seen on past mornings, going all the way back to your very first awareness of morning? Is self a private possession…akin to soul…abiding throughout life…. perhaps persisting beyond? Or is personal identity a fleeting experience… or less a reality than a way of talking…or a construct that creates a sense of continuity as one moves through time?

In recent years, serious responses have been piling up on both sides.  But agreements remain elusive. What is to be done?

The plan here is to step outside the scientific and philosophical arenas in which the question is conventionally debated. I will turn instead to movies with some simple questions. What do their reflections tell characters about themselves, about their personal identity? And how do characters react to what they see?

Cinema is a promising site for such an investigation. It provides us with the visible dreams of characters, and shows their unseen desires as well. What’s more,  movies play out the operations of our own moviegoing minds, reflecting back to us  our own sense of who we are.

Such play is my target here. I’ll not dwell on philosophical and scientific inquiries into selfhood. Instead I’ll attend to how self is handled, how self is done. I am not pursuing a proposition about self, or a claim, or even a hypothesis. Rather I am aiming for an understanding of the ways that people conduct themselves, even when, especially when, they don’t have answers to questions about the nature of the self they’re dealing with.

We are told that we never wonder who we are,…that we always know it is us who looks at us from our mirrors…that we are the same individuals we have always been for as long as we can remember…  So we are told:


But self-concepts, our self-schemata, don’t tell the whole story.  The larger and still unexplored issue is how we “do” self, “realize” self, and “accomplish” self.  These are the questions to be addressed here.

Silvered Screens  examines hundreds of movie scenes in which characters look at themselves in mirrors, studying, questioning, celebrating, imagining, criticizing, and assaulting the glasses that reflect their selves.

Mirrors, of course, have long been considered both truth-tellers and grand deceivers. So, their effects are bound to be complicated. And as a result, the mirror’s tale of the self is predictably complicated and deserves reflection.

(Mungo Thompson, June 25, 2001 (How the Universe Will End) March 6, 1995 (When Did the Universe Begin?), 2012; at The Jewish Museum, NYC, June 2, 2017)

Brief Bibliography

-For materialist, reductionist, and functionalist analyses of self, see Antonio Damasio’s Self Comes to Mind (2010), Patricia Churchland’s Touching a Nerve (2013); Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained (1991) and Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking (2013); Merlin Donald’s Origins of the Modern Mind (1991); Gerald Edelman’s, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire (1992); Michael Gazzaniga’s The Mind’s Past (1998); Michael Graziano’s Consciousness and the Social Brain (2013); Leonard Mlodinow’s Subliminal (2012); Jesse Prinz’s The Conscious Brain (2012); Sebastian Seung’s Connectome (2012); Dan Siegel’s Developing Mind (2012); and Michael Spivey’s The Continuity of Mind (2007).

-For philosophical analyses in the Humean tradition, see Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons (1984); Julian Baggini’s The Self Illusion (2010); and Bruce Hood’s The Self Illusion (2013).

-For views in the tradition of process philosophy, see G. William Barnard’s Living Consciousness: The Metaphysical Vision of Henri Bergson (2011); Elena Fell’s Duration, Temporality, Self: Prospects for the Future of Bergsonism (2012); Scott Marratto’s Intercorporeal Self (2012); Carolyn Dean’s The Self and Its Pleasures (1992); Simon Blackburn’s Mirror, Mirror: The Uses and Abuses of Self Love (2014); Calvin Schrag’s The Self After Postmodernity (1997); Slavoj Žižek’s Cogito and the Unconscious: SIC2 (1998) andThe Ticklish Subject (1999); Stephen White’s Sustaining Affirmation (2000); David Ray Griffin’s Unsnarling the World-Knot: Consciousness, Freedom, and the Mind-Body Problem (1996); and Andy Clark’s Supersizing the Mind (2010).

-For analyses of the conventional usage of “self” and its implications, see Stephen Toulmin’s “Self-Knowledge and Knowledge of the ‘Self’, in The Self: Psychological and Philosophical Issues, ed by Theodore Mischel (1977); and Anthony Kenny’s Self (1988).

-For neo-Cartesian discourses, see Alburey Castell’s The Self in Philosophy (1965); Robert George’s Consciousness and its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism (2013); Geoffrey Madell’s The Essence of the Self (2015); and Eyal Chowers’s The Modern Self in the Labyrinth: Politics and the Entrapment Imagination (2004).

-For psychological approaches, see Marcia Cavell’s Becoming a Subject (2006); James Hillman’s Re-visioning Psychology (1975); J.J. Varberg’s Dreams, Death, and the Self (2007); and Arnold Modell’s The Private Self, (1983).

-For panpsychist views, see Galen Strawson’s Selves (2009) and Locke on Personal Identity (2011); David Chalmers’s The Conscious Mind (1996); Giulio Tononi’s Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul (2012); and Kristof Koch’s Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (2012).

For views that align Eastern thought with the neuroscience of self, see Mark Johnston’s Surviving Death (2010); Evan Thompson’s Waking, Dreaming Being (2014); Andrew Newberg’s The Mystic Mind (1999) and Principles of Neurotheology (2010); and also Alison Gopnik’s essay on Hume and Buddhism in The Atlantic Monthy, 2015 (October).

-For views that emphasize the singularity and centrality of consciousness in the definition of personal identity, see Barry Dainton’s The Phenomenal Self (2008) and Self (2014); Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos (2012); and John Searle Mind (2004).

-For narrativist views—following a line of inquiry initiated by Plutarch—see Owen Flanagan’s The Problem of the Soul (2002); Christine Korsgaard’s Self-Constitution (2009); J. David Velleman’s Self to Self (2006); and Marya Schechtman’s Staying Alive: Personal Identity, Practical Concerns, and the Unity of a Life, (2014).

-For broad and comprehensive histories of debates about the self, see Raymond Martin and John Barresi’s The Rise and Fall of the Concept of Self (2006); George Makari’s The Soul Machine (2013); Jerrold Seigel’s The Idea of the Self: Thought and Experience in Western Europe since the Seventeenth Century (2005); Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self (1991); and Udo Thiel’s The Early Modern Subject: Consciousness and Personal Identity from Descartes to Hume (2011).

-For views of self mediated by literary and religious writings, see Joy LaBelle’s Herself Beheld (1987); Ben Morgan’s On Becoming God: Late Medieval Mysticism and the Modern Western Self (2012), Charles Rzepka’s The Self as Mind (1996), Ewan Fernie’s The Demonic (2013); Dror Wahrman’s The Making of the Modern Self (2004); Julie Park’s Self and It (2010); John Gray’s The Soul of the Marionette (2015); and Anthony Cascardi’s The Subject of Modernity (1992).

-For conceptions of self in antiquity, see Shadi Bartsch’s The Mirror of the Self (2006); Larry Siedentop’s Inventing The Individual:The Origins of Western Liberalism (2014); and Richard Sorabji’s Self (2006).

-For the anthropological reports that figured into my discussion of personhood in Speak Into the Mirror: A Story of Linguistic Anthropology (1988), see Clifford Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures (1973); Maurice Leenhardt Do Kamo: Person and Myth in the Melanesian World (1979); Louis Dumont’s Essays on Individualism (1986); and Paul Heelas and Andrew Locke’s Indigenous Psychologies: The Anthropology of the Self (1981). And for more recent treatments, see Brian Morris’s Anthropology of the Self (1994) and Martin Sokefeld’s “Debating Self Identity and Culture” (Current Anthropology, 40 (4) 1999).