1.10 / Mirror Image

Drifting and Navigating, Part 2

By Anthony Marcellini March 10, 2010

Becoming Real: A Magpie’s Recognition of Self1

Recently, I have been fascinated with the European Magpie (Pica pica). Since moving to Gothenburg, Sweden, it seems that I can’t escape this mischievous and curious bird, which appears to inhabit every corner of the city. They stand out. The manner in which they interact socially with each other, the way they hold their heads, the fashion by which they stare, and how they seem to notice me, strikes me as so much more performed and engaged than most other animals. After doing some research, I discovered that magpies not only demonstrate an elaborate understanding of social relations, they are the only bird species—and one of only a few animal species—that can recognize their own reflection in a mirror.2

In 1970, the psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr. developed the Mirror Test, an experiment that attempted to gauge self-awareness in animals by determining whether an individual animal could recognize its reflection in a mirror as an image of itself. A number of subsequent studies have investigated "mirror-induced" self-awareness in a range of animal species, from apes to dogs to dolphins. Most animals either don’t respond at all, or respond with aggressive displays and other social behaviors, assuming the image in the mirror is another animal. However, in a few species the individual animal recognizes its mirror image and uses it to explore its body and movement, suggesting evidence of self-recognition. Animal behavior specialists have suggested that individual animals that exhibit self-recognition also tend to belong to species with highly developed social systems, as well as exhibit social understanding and empathetic behavior. This would suggest that an animal’s knowledge of self—whether bird, mammal or human—and knowledge of self-image, is linked to their behavior in their larger social system.

This suggestion that there is a connection between self-awareness and our social systems corresponds with my own investigations into the social politics of recognition—the process of understanding ourselves as individuals in our society by our awareness of others’ perceptions of us and our actions. Here, actions are everything that we do specific to us as individuals. I am interested in what the philosopher Mika Hannula enigmatically refers to as what we do when we do what we do.3 Perhaps we are not always aware of what we do or how what we do affects others, but my assumption is that it always has an effect, no matter how minuscule. Our actions, production, and subjectivity become linked through how others see and understand us, and this exterior conjecture in turn affects and structures our interior perceptions of ourselves. As Jean-Paul Sartre simply put it, “I am as the other sees me."4

By recognizing ourselves as viewed, visible, and conspicuous members of society, we understand that subjectivity—the perspectives, thoughts, opinions, beliefs, and desires specific to one’s interior self or character—is not simply framed by, but is part of, the framing of our social life and our greater society. Society manifests as a more malleable construct than we may realize, and with each gesture, we play a part in its construction. It is a social system made up of individuals who are constantly performing, reacting and adapting to each other’s presentations of self.

Our social life depends on this coming into being that occurs when we see ourselves as the other sees us. It is the first time we understand ourselves as individuals acting beyond the private space of the home, in the public space of the world, surrounded by the things that make up our world. In “The Mirror Stage,” Jacques Lacan describes a child’s self-recognition in a mirror, testing its space through a series of gestures. He says the child “experiences in play the relation between movements assumed in the image and the reflected environment, and between this virtual complex and the reality it reduplicates —the child’s own body, and the persons and things, around him.”5 To paraphrase Lacan, it is the gestalt of the body, or the understanding of the body in space as seen in the mirror, that partially gives the subject a sense of self. Beyond the first stage of the Mirror Stage, I believe each individual’s cognition of oneself as an individual who, through gestures, actions, speeches, or creations, creates the society that in turn gives one a sense of self.

With this trajectory, I began to imagine what a magpie might be thinking when it sees its reflection for the first time. Does a magpie understand itself as an active participant in society through its recognition of selfhood? Using texts paraphrased and influenced by a number of thinkers who examine self-awareness, performativity, and social engagement, I began to sketch the coming into being of The Magpie.

The following perspectives were referenced, paraphrased or, more to the point, influential on the parable that follows.6 Judith Butler’s “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution” presents an argument regarding the performance, instruction, and adoption of gender; I have taken this assertion to mean that many other aspects of our personalities are similarly instructed, adopted, and performed.7 Erving Goffman’s “Performances” expounds on the performativity of our everyday life and actions.8 Jacques Lacan’s “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I” describes a stage of child development, roughly at six months in age, when a baby begins to recognize its mirror image as itself.9 For Lacan this is the first and perhaps the most important of stages in an individual’s identification. Jean-Paul Sartre’s “The Look” describes how the gaze of the other—a philosophical term indicating a person or persons other and different than oneself—both controls and creates one’s self-perception.10 And Victor Turner’s “Social Dramas” and “Dramatic Ritual/Ritual Drama” expand on how both self and society are rehearsed, acted and theatricalized, as well as how life and its rituals often mirror the ritual of theater.11


  1. This title is a nod to the Velveteen Rabbit or How Toys Become Real, a children's novel written by Margery Williams in 1922 that describes the coming into being of a toy rabbit. This book kept emerging during my research for this text, and I thought it must bear some relation. Reflecting back on it, I wonder if there is a connection between my youthful fascination with the story of a toy rabbit becoming a real rabbit, and my current fascination with the metaphor of the magpie understanding itself as a real individual through its recognition of self in the mirror.
  2. Prior H, Schwarz A, Güntürkün O, "Mirror-Induced Behavior in the Magpie (Pica pica): Evidence of Self-Recognition," in PLoS Biol 6(8): e202, http://www.plosbiology.org/article/info:doi/ 10.1371/journal.pbio.0060202
  3. Mika Hanula, “Introduction,” in Politics, Identity and Public Space (Utrecht: Expothesis, 2009), p 10-24.
  4. Jean-Paul Sartre, "The Existence of Others," in Being and Nothingness (New York: Washington Square Press, 1957), p 222.
  5. Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,” in Ecrits, A Selection (New York: W. W. Norman and Company, 1949), p 2.
  6. Specific texts are not cited in the narrative in order to preserve the narrative flow. Additionally, I often articulated each theorist’s perspective either in combination with another’s thought or out of context of the original article. In this light, citations would have been more distracting than elucidating to the specific thought of each thinker. My hope is that the list of texts and the ways in which they have been influential will encourage the reader's further investigations.
  7. Judith Butler, "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory," Theatre Journal, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Dec., 1988): p 519-531.
  8. Erving Goffman, "Performances," in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1959), p 17-76.
  9. Lacan, Ibid, p 1-7.
  10. Jean-Paul Sartre, "The Look," in Being and Nothingness (New York: Washington Square Press, 1957), 340-355.
  11. Victor Turner, “Social Dramas” and “Dramatic Ritual/Ritual Drama” in From Ritual to Theater (New York: PAJ Publications, 1982).

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