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Introduction: The Mirror Stage

For Jessica and Pierre

I’m nervous.

Just under a week from the release of this issue, I leave for Europe on my first trip to the Continent. I’m rather excited about it — I’m traveling from Croatia to the Czech Republic, Germany, Netherlands, France, and the UK — but still, I can’t help having this nagging, sinking feeling about the entire trip.

You see, I’m fairly sure this isn’t the best time in history for an American to be abroad.

I’m not concerned about bioterrorism, kidnappings, muggings in dark alleys in Praha 1, or anything like that. I’m concerned with being pegged as an American and having to deal with the face-to-face ramifications of what comes down to an accident of birth.

I’ve been outside the US before, so I’m used to the kind of anti-Americanism that appears when people find out you’re American, especially when the US government is up to no good. For three years, I lived in Toronto and went to graduate school with a number of quasi-Marxist kids who saw me, along with some of my peers who’d also come up from the states, as the advance force of the invading American colonial army. We were singled out by the folks in charge of the program as a shining example of why it was that our program was better than anything in the US (which in part was true); but our peers saw us as receiving special treatment because we were Yanks, something they equated with how the rest of the world treated the US (and how Americans expected to be treated).

Because of this — and because I didn’t have anything that fit under some criterion of oppressed grouping — I was ostracized by most of the people in my program. There were some who overlooked the fact that my father wasn’t smart enough to avoid enlisting during the Vietnam War (he’s now fond of saying “If I knew then what I know now, you’d have been born in Whitehorse”) and weren’t set off by my passport. But for most, I was “the California guy,” with people even wondering if Baywatch or I would give a better sense of what life was like in Los Angeles. There were others who weren’t as concerned with my nationality and became good friends with me.

So for over a year, a dear friend of mine worked with me on my accent, the way I held my body, the way I phrased my sentences, and my stylistic sensibilities (which needed work anyway). I became the only hyphenated Canadian in town — the “American-Canadian.” I identified myself as “the recovering American,” even going so far as to develop a twelve-step program for overcoming the sense of imperial entitlement (step ten, by the way, was learning the appropriate use of “eh”). She helped me become the person I wanted to be — someone who didn’t rely on the stock phrase, “I’m an American citizen; you can’t do that to me,” to handle anything; and ultimately, everything worked so well that my students in Toronto didn’t know I was American, and my students in California after my return didn’t know I wasn’t American.

Part of the reason I was concerned with not being perceived as American didn’t have to do with not being able to handle what others thought of the country — on the contrary. More often than not, I agreed with others’ perceptions of what the US government, industry, and media did to other countries. I agreed that it was a cheap shot to insert a maple leaf into American corporate logos to convince people that KFC was Canadian; that it was ludicrous for the US government to think that Canadian companies and individuals should “go green” while pollution controls were loosened on American companies; and that the requirement of 33% Canadian music on the radio or MuchMusic (the mythical “Can-con” requirement) was way too low, since American media companies were jacking up their power to broadcast over the border in any case.

No, the reason I was concerned with being clearly labeled an American had to do with what “being American” means to people around the world. More often than not, people outside the US make a clear distinction between “America,” “the American government,” and “Americans.” For them, America may be the land of opportunity and a place where one can improve their standard of living (by taking on two or three jobs to pay for that improvement), but the American government is more meddlesome and trouble than it’s worth. And Americans…well, Americans are thought of in the way that all Americans think the French see them — rude, obnoxious, thoughtless, shallow, obsessed with what friends call the “Five B” culture — business, baseball, beer, babes, and belching. And I wanted nothing to do with that culture.

Thanks to my time in Toronto, I don’t think like the “typical American,” act like the “typical American,” or even look like the “typical American.” I’ve worked hard to be a part of the larger world, to be what Neil Young called “a citizen of the world,” and to take on a variety of perspectives about how the world works and how it should work. And it was hard work: it took time, a thick skin, and the capacity to reflect on myself, how “I” was created, and how that took place in a particular social context. It took a willingness to reflect on who I was and who I wanted to be in the world. It took the nasty mirror of misplaced anti-Americanness to show me everything I needed to see.

* * * * *

Much of sociological and social-psychological theory revolves around understanding how it is that individuals are the product of their particular social contexts. George Herbert Mead developed the joined concepts of the “I” and the “me” to address the different ways in which individuals feel themselves in the world. Charles Cooley develops the idea of the “looking-glass self” to grapple with the same question. The psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan turns this into the concept of the “mirror stage” to explain part of human development — namely, that part of development that involved and individual recognizing themselves from the outside (as if in a mirror). And countless other theorists work to address the same overarching question: How do I become myself?

This question, though, isn’t limited only to individuals and their own development. Lacan and other more psychological theorists presume that the mirror stage takes place early in human development — sometime around 18 months to two years, when children can recognize their own reflection or their face in a photograph. But there is another kind of “mirror stage,” one that pertains more to a sociological context, and one that shouldn’t be limited to the early development of a nation.

Every society has some moment, some point in time at which — sometimes thanks to outside forces, sometimes due to internal matters — it comes to realize that what it thinks of itself is actually quite far off from the truth. One only has to look at the 20th century to see many of these moments: Russia in 1917 during the Bolshevik Revolution; France in 1940 after its defeat by Nazi Germany; Germany and Japan after their defeat by the Allies in World War II; Great Britain after the dissolution of the British Empire; the US after its defeat in Vietnam and the wear brought about by the backlash against the civil rights movement; the Warsaw Pact nations in 1989. In each of these cases, the nation concerned seemed to go through a period of reflection, of thoughtful consideration about what had it led it to that moment, what it had become, and what it wanted to be from that moment on; and in each of these cases, there seemed to be some kind of fundamental change brought about as a result of that reflection. And whether that change became a proletarian revolution against the czar, or a period of withdrawal from international affairs, or a reconsideration of how former colonial countries would relate to its former colonies, these reflective periods led to a new way of being for these countries and for their peoples.

When that mirror is held up to our faces, we see ourselves from the outside, as objects, subject to forces beyond our control, not the creator of the world around us. There are really two ways in which this can be dealt with: either we work to bring our sense of who we are and who we want to be in line with what we have become to others; or we resort to the old Sartrean standby line, “Hell is other people,” and ignore the mirror. In either case, we end up acknowledging the fact that we now know who we are; what becomes of it, though, is a different story.

* * * * *

The events of the last year — not just 9/11 and the subsequent “war on terror”, but also the collapse of Enron and other major international corporations, the economic downturn industrialized economies have suffered, and even the World Cup — have provided American society and Americans with an opportunity for this kind of reflection. We’ve been given the chance to take another look at who we are, how we relate to others (both within and outside the US), and the kind of world we would want to see outlast us.

In my last contribution to these pages (, I made the comment that I hoped that “life gets back to the mundane, and the mundane becomes a better place to be.” After that issue and some of the publicity that JMB received, I had the opportunity to contribute to a book that had as its explicit intention the kind of reflection I’ve been talking about here. There, I said that one of the things that needed to happen in order to reclaim a sense of normalcy after 9/11 was to be the best of what Americans can be while reflecting on what others think the worst of America is and how we can change it.

Yet in the months since 9/11, there appears to have been very little reflection on the part of the US, its leadership, and very frequently its people, on these matters. Take President Bush’s comments on the “axis of evil,” his statement that “if you’re not with us, you’re against us,” and the variety of policies enacted to “protect the US from terrorism” (ranging from the PATRIOT Act to the new immigration laws that leave all immigrants, legal or otherwise, fearful of their continued status in the US). Do these actions on our leadership’s part indicate any kind of reflection on or engagement with that mirror that’s been held up to us? My inclination would be to say no — these responses indicate the kind of mistrust, suspicion, and fear that typified the Roman Empire before its fall instead of a reasoned response to others’ view of the US. This isn’t to say that I think the war in Afghanistan, the “war on terror,” or the military responses are wrong — or right. But it is to say that we’ve not really looked into the mirror — or rather, we have, we’ve said “War is hell, and hell is other people,” and done the usual.

There are other patterns that indicate that the US as a whole is not willing to reflect on what it’s become. In late 2001, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a think-tank claiming to be dedicated to ensuring quality higher education, issued a report detailing 113 instances of “anti-American speeches” made by university faculty (always named) and students. Many of these statements were not explicitly anti-American, but were more along the lines of the foolish or the highly dubitable. But, the majority of the statements compiled in the report all asked the same thing: Is the US really the great society, the land of the righteous, we’ve been told it is? And if not, how we can make who we are and how we live better?

This is what was proclaimed to be “anti-American” — having the audacity to actually question if we are doing the right thing. Through all my life, I’d been told that it was not only my right but my duty, to question those in authority, to ensure that they were doing what we needed to have done. Now, though, it seems as if the right to question has been taken away from us, and we have abdicated the courage and the obligation to question. In other words, it seems as if we have decided not to reflect on our place in the world.

Undoubtedly, the US is the premier country in the world in terms of wealth, military power — and is thereby most responsible for how the world operates. The US has become the world’s policeman, trying to ensure that all the countries in the world who want to play with us do so on our terms, and making those who don’t pay on the lousy end of a cluster bomb or “daisy cutter.” So why is it that American society seems so reluctant, so unwilling, to check on what it is they do to make sure that it is not only the right thing for American economic interests or national security, but also the good? If we are going to take responsibility for the operation of the world and compel other countries to do what we want and to make themselves in our image — a process which, as Cuba shows us, requires a great deal of reflection (and ultimately a great deal of courage) — then why should we be exempted from this kind of reflection? Just because no one can hold a gun to our heads (as the US often does to others’ heads)?

9/11 and the continuous terror warnings and “alert statuses” since then have showed us that others can hold a gun to our heads and try to make us think about who we are and how we live with others in the world. But if we’re trying to be a role model for the world — in terms of our form of government, our economy, and our “morality” — then we also need to role model the kind of reflection we want to see around us.

* * * * *

Of course, there have been many people in American society who have engaged in this kind of reflection. Generally thought of as (though not always in actuality) politically left, these people have examined American foreign policy, economic policy, our culture, and our entire mode of existence in big terms to try to suggest new ways of being with others and in the world. Intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky; religious groups such as the Quakers; and journals devoted to social criticism such as Bad Subjects — these groups and more have worked to understand the “big picture” and how we can improve it.

This journal has done so as well. For nearly three full years now, Journal of Mundane Behavior has worked to understand the basics of everyday life — how we do things, why we do them in the way we do, and whether or not we should rethink those patterns of action. We have, in other words, tried to be a reflection of the world, to allow our readers to see what they do in a new light so that they can critically and thoughtfully evaluate that way of life. Where other forums might be political or theoretical about these things, resorting to an alienating jargon or a divisive ideological stance, JMB has simply said: “Look, this is something we all do, how we do it, and why we do it. What do we do now that we know this?”

Also since I last wrote here, my sociological hero, Pierre Bourdieu, passed away at 71 from cancer. Professor Bourdieu was one of those rare intellectuals (well, at least rare in the US; France, his homeland, is renowned for engaged intellectuals) who bridged the realm between theory and practice; in other words, he lived his sociology and let his sociology inform his life. Starting with his doctoral fieldwork in Algeria at the start of the eight-year-long war of liberation, Bourdieu saw not only how lousy the world could be and how badly it could treat people (The Weight of the World is, by far, the clearest indication of the degree of suffering that goes unnoticed), but also saw the place of intellectuals and of abstracted intellectualism in perpetuating that world. To his mind, what sociologists — nay, what everyone — needed to do was to reflect on their place in the world and what they wanted to do about it. I offer up two quotes that indicate the core of this notion of his:

I believe that when sociology remains at a highly abstract and formal level, it contributes nothing. When it gets down to the nitty gritty of real life, however, it is an instrument that people can apply to themselves for quasi-clinical purposes. The true freedom that sociology offers is to give us a small chance of knowing what game we play and of minimizing the ways in which we are manipulated by the forces of the field in which we evolve, as well as by the embodied social forces that operate from within us. I am not suggesting that sociology solves all the problems in the world, far from it, but that it allows us to discern the sites where we do indeed enjoy a degree of freedom and those where we do not. So that we do not waste our energy struggling over terrains that offer us no leeway.

When you apply reflexive sociology to yourself, you open up the possibility of identifying true sites of freedom, and thus of building small-scale, modest, practical morals in keeping with the scope of human freedom which, in my opinion, is not that large. (Bourdieu, “For a Realpolitik of Reason,” in Bourdieu and Wacquant, An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology [1992, Chicago: University of Chicago Press], pp. 198-99)

In other words, what Bourdieu asks of us is to understand how our lives are constructed, what spaces of freedom we have within our lives, and what we want to do to live good lives. And to my mind, this is the most important thing we can do in the early 21st century. We do not have to be seen as a resource-grabbing, all-controlling, selfish and self-interested, exploitative society; but in order to do this, we need to understand how it is we can be seen like this and what we can do about it. If not, then I fear that the US will never be safe.

All of this has to do with why I’m nervous about a glorious month abroad. Obviously, I do engage in this kind of reflection, and I’m not afraid of hearing someone out about how crappy they think America treats the rest of the world. What makes me nervous is that the absence of this kind of reflection on the part of American society may result in a knee-jerk lack of reflection on the part of others, and that who I am will get lost in the middle. And I simply won’t live my life like that.

Time to sew the unifoli√© on my suitcase…

* * * * *

On to the business at hand:

In this issue, we return to our general approach to exploring the peculiarities of everyday life. For our JMB 3.3 issue, which will appear this fall, we will examine Atrocity, Outrage, and the Ordinary — the ways that atrocities infect our daily lives, how a sense of outrage is lived, how daily life can be atrocious, and how we can work to improve all these situations.

Phillip Vannini examines the thing I look forward to both most and least about my trip — waiting abroad. Using such theorists as Bergson, Virilio, and Deleuze and making them comprehensible, Vannini examines the ways in which physical space, social space, time, and speed all intersect to manage the ways we experience delays.

Eunha Jung sees a great opportunity in another part of our daily lives that seems wasted (quite literally) — our bathroom time. Jung explores the ways in which our “private mundanity” — moments such as “toilet reading” and singing in the shower — can serve as a way to improve second language acquisition.

John Manzo’s “Community Organizing: ‘Community’ as a Discursive Resource in a Youth Social Services Agency” examines the ways in which community is conceptualized in Toronto, Canada. Moving between insider and outsider constructions of communities, and definitions of “community” on the basis of locality or nationality, Manzo highlights the ways in which discussions of community impact on programs designed to help kids stay off the streets.

Daniel Mears looks at the practice known as “bullshitting.” Need more be said? It’s a great piece. Really.

Niyi Awofeso’s “Wedding Rings and the Feminist Movement” studies the various ways that wedding rings have been historically practiced, ranging from symbols of economic bonds between families to symbols of love, and how those definitions have changed as a result of changes in women’s positions in society.

Joseph Wang’s contribution to this number represents a departure for JMB, utilizing mathematical models and reasoning from physics and economics as a way of understanding everyday decision-making processes. Integrating these various disciplines and approaches to how it is we decide things, Wang’s ultimate argument is that by understanding the rationality that informs our decision-making processes, we can avoid discomfort in our existence with others.

Linda Forman reminds us of pre-9/11 days by looking at concert-going during the summer of 2001, giving us a view of bands by looking at audiences.

Anton Karl Kozlovic provides us with a sadly timely article on how members of the clergy are perceived. “Sacred Servants in the Popular Cinema” develops a taxonomy of the ways in which that “people of the cloth” are represented in film, and works to link those cinematic depictions of clergy with our own ideas of how the holy are supposed to be.

Finally, Severyn Bruyn provides us with our latest “mundane manifesto.” Developing a greater understanding of how participant observation — the study of what people do while doing it oneself — can serve as a method for studying everyday life, Bruyn gives us the tools for reflecting on our own lives.

* * * * *

Ultimately, it has always been JMB’s goal to provide our readers with a kind of mirror on their lives and the tools by which they can reflect on those lives. At the beginning, this was a generalized and luxurious sense of ethicality — a sense that for whatever reason, we needed to be living better with and for other people. Recent months and events have shown that this nagging sense of ethicality needs to become an explicit and necessary way of being, and the members of our editorial board and our reviewers continue to hope that what we produce allows you this opportunity — and that you take advantage of it.

Author: Scott Schaffer

Published inIssue 3.2Issues
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