The Mirror

Alex Stone offers the mirror, an object infused with meaning yet taken at face value. With modern narcissism a driving force of consumerism and the Anthropocene, where all we see in the mirror are the technofossils we wear as clothes or jewellery, the mirror is a tragedy of the commons.

Museum of the Anthropocene: The Mirror

Showing an ancient Egyptian bronze mirror, Egypt, 800-100 BCE.
Ancient Egyptian bronze mirror, Egypt, 800-100 BCE. Photograph: Science Museum, London. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

An object so infused in meaning yet always taken at face value. A reflection of the present yet forged in the past and a stepping stone to the future. Is this the Mirrorocene? Go now and take a minute to look properly into a mirror.

What do you see?

Do you see yourself?
The mirror is a test. A test of seeing the self but also of recognising being. I am what I see. Only elephants, apes and magpies pass this test alongside us. ‘Us’? We all own a reflection yet we aren’t all equal. As we are all equal in the face of the Anthropocene yet we are not all to blame. So a mirror in the Anthropocene poses a new kind of test.

Do you see God?
The Bible states we are a self-portrait of God. Are we Gods? The first people to own mirrors believed so. For much of human history a slab of polished metal or a pool of water is all we had. The Columbian Exchange, which kick started modern day globalisation, gave new light to the production of manmade mirrors. Through the exchange of techniques in glass-blowing within Europe and of materials such as gold and silver arriving from the Americas, the mirror became an object of power. The power of the mirror is in reality the power of the reflection. “Man has been interested in his own image since prehistoric times” writes Melchior-Bonnet1, and this is reflected in the old story of Narcissus; a man who got consumed by his own reflection in a spring of water.

Nowadays we look at our reflections constantly, this modern narcissism is the driving force of the Anthropocene. Where would consumer culture be without the mirror? The mirror is the tragedy of the commons.

Do you see nature?
The great American naturalist Thoreau once said “I am nature looking into nature.” But our lives are now so clouded by culture that all we see when we look in the mirror are the technofossils that we wear on our skin, in the form of clothes or jewellery. Others may see oppression as plantation workers in America saw, or destruction as indigenous tribes have seen. The mirror is also particularly prevalent for women’s rights and will always be the privileged and vulnerable province of femininity, as Sylvia Plath describes in her poem ‘Mirror’2. The mirror is therefore a sanctuary and a prison. But it is also hope. An object of resistance, a tool of the oppressed. Environmental justice movements are a reflection of local attitudes toward global-narratives, and are growing in strength. An Anthropocene of hope?

Lastly, what do you not see?

What can you not see?

Mirrors have in the last century allowed us to see what we could not before. Microscopes and telescopes have unearthed the microscopic to the otherworldly and cameras have captured memories of a species with amnesia. Mirrors have accelerated human knowledge to the point where we now understand the full impact of our footprint on the planet and ourselves.

Do you see fate when you look in the mirror or hope?

The mirror is a test.


The Mirror was contributed by Alex Stone: “Deep in the darkest depths of lockdown, Martin’s module polished the mirror of inspiration that had been neglected within me for so many years. I hope that the self-reflection garnered from this short piece pushes you towards a more intrinsic view of our Anthropocene, as it did for me.”

1 The Mirror: A History, by Sabine Melchior-Bonnet; translated by Katharine H. Jewett (2001, Routledge).

2 Mirror, by Slyvia Plath, was published in the poet’s posthumous collection, Crossing the Water (1975, Faber & Faber).


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *