The Two of Me

The old sepia-toned photograph shows a dead bullfighter stretched out on a slab in the infirmary of a bullring in Madrid. The bullfighter is 20-year-old Manuel Granero, reputedly Valencia’s greatest matador, who died in 1922 after a bull gored him in the eye and pierced his skull. A group of somber men is arrayed behind him, most of them staring in the direction of the camera. The photograph is reprinted in Ernest Hemingway’s 1932 paean to bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon. A terse caption reads: “Granero dead in the infirmary. Only two in the crowd are thinking about Granero. The others are all intent on how they will look in the photograph.” With Hemingway, of course, what is left unsaid on the page is often as important as what is. Being a photographer, I could not have left it unsaid better myself: the camera's uncanny ability to make every such scene about itself.

Long ago I was attached to a film crew shooting a documentary with non-actors. The director would instruct them not to look directly at the camera during the filming. Professional actors know that looking directly at the camera — or addressing the audience directly in a stage production — is “breaking the fourth wall” – a reference to the invisible “fourth wall” separating the action from the audience. Normally in a stage production, the actors will not acknowledge the presence of an audience in order the maintain the illusion that what takes place on stage is real. In looking at the camera rather than at the dead matador when the shutter was pressed, the somber men arrayed behind him signaled that they were posing for a picture rather than mourning their fallen hero.

If you photograph the family dog, your pet will not pose for the picture. Yet even a very small child might say “Cheese!” when a camera is pointed in his or her direction, as my granddaughter used to do. By the age of two, children have already learned to recognize their own image in a photograph or their reflection in a mirror. Some are even taking selfies with their parents’ cellphones. Among all God's creatures, only human beings and a few other large mammals are capable of recognizing their own reflection in a mirror. Psychologists regard mirror self-recognition as a key step in developing a concept of self.·

French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan first identified the “mirror stage” of child development, when toddlers fall in love with their reflections in a mirror. This is the point at which the self becomes both the subject and object of one’s awareness – a condition that the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer regarded as “the most monstrous contradiction ever thought of.” Schopenhauer’s point is that we often think of ourselves as if there were two of us, the “me” that observes everything but otherwise leaves no trace to itself in the world and the “me” that is the object of those observations.

Where does this second “me” come from? Neuroscientists point to the rapid enlargement some 300,000 years ago of the prefrontal lobes of the human brain, which control such higher cognitive functions as symbolic speech, abstract reasoning and foresight. Of most significance here is that the prefrontal lobes enable us to engage in “counterfactual thinking” – to imagine things that are not tangibly part of our immediate sensory experience. This is what enables a toddler to conjure up a sense of self from his own image in a mirror or in a photograph — or for an onlooker to image what he will look like in a photograph of a dead bullfighter in the moment when the photographer snaps the picture.

In the words of cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter, the “I” I think I am is “a mirage that perceives itself.” Fortunately, we don’t have to lug his extra “me” around all the time. Most human activity doesn’t require much thinking at all. We rely on what is called muscle memory, which originates not in the prefrontal lobes but in the basal ganglia. Muscle memory enables us to tie our shoes, brush our teeth, drive a car and do a thousand other things without having to think our way through each step of the process. Nor do we think, “Now I am tying my shoes, now I am brushing my teeth, now I am driving a car.” Our phantom self has nothing to do with it — and a good thing, too, since we would probably tie ourselves in knots trying to figure out how we have been tying our shoes all these years.

The Russian mystic George Gurdjieff once complained that human beings are “animated automatons” who waste their lives in a hypnotic state of “waking sleep.” He was speaking in a spiritual sense, but there are practical applications to our habitual multi-tasking. With our muscle memory literally doing most of the heavy lifting, the pioneering psychologist William James contended that “our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.” Thus, the poet Wallace Stevens used to write verses in his head while walking three miles to work at his day job at an insurance company in Hartford, presumably without tripping all over himself in the process. Similarly, I can type these words without having to remember where the letters are on the keyboard or how to spell the words, freeing me up to think about what I am saying. I can even do this without thinking, “Now I am typing these words.” But if you want to engage with my second “me,” all you have to do is point a camera in my direction.

William James, The Psychology of Habit

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