In his psychoanalytic theory, Jacques Lacan proposed the “mirror stage.” The mirror stage is a stage of infancy in which a child looks at themselves in the mirror and, for the first time, views themself as an object. In an instant, reality shifts. The infant recognizes themself and thus becomes both subjective and objective, object and beholder, participant and spectator. The infant is first a set of eyes, then a body. When combined with its soul, the infant becomes a self. The infant no longer views itself as irreversibly attached to their mother—it now perceives itself as a separate being. But now that it has become a separate self, it will need an identity, separate from the one it has as the child of its mother. It will need to mold itself into being, create itself.
What does it mean for a person to create an identity? What does it mean for one to behold an image of themselves? What right does one have to this image? What happens when the self-image that a person creates is not the same as the one others see? Perhaps we should look towards a mirror of contemporary society for answers: The Sims.
The Sims is an online simulation game created by Will Wright and first released on February 4, 2000. What started out as a simple sandbox game has become a way to explore the intricacies of modern human psychology. In The Sims, you’re a god, and anything goes. In some cases, people use it to create nuclear families with their crushes, but many use it as a way to act out violent and twisted fantasies such as purposely starving their sims, murdering sims, making their Sims kleptomaniacs and criminals, having a bunch of kids just to neglect them, having those kids get taken away by the state, etc. Others use the sims to unite reality and science fiction by way of alien babies and mutants. Most people use it as a form of catharsis. In his essay “The Sims: Suburban Rhapsody,” Clive Thompson writes, “The Sims is a private laboratory to experiment with the forbidden ‘what-ifs’ of your existence,” in which there is “no winning or losing.” In The Sims people create idealized versions of themselves and their peers in a realistic virtual environment.
In reality, we are all sims. Especially in college, The Sims is a microcosm of our current lives. We man the drawing board of our lives. This is the place where we can choose who to become; we as people can change (re: “i’m going to be so different in college!”). Perhaps we too are living in an ideational reality, where The Machine puppeteers us, every aspect of our lives influenced by an unknown looming presence.
Indeed, we have much in common with the virtual persons we control. Just as we fashion our sims with certain attributes, physical characteristics, names, and dispositions, we create and stylize ourselves as unique individuals. Identity formation is an exercise in personal branding. But what right do we have to impose the image of ourselves onto others? Of course, my use of the word “image” connotes a literal meaning of the word, a representation of something visual.
Vision is our most dominant sense—what we can observe seems more important, more real than anything we can’t. Who could blame anyone harboring a gluttonous obsession with their looks? To my mind, the crafting of an image, and the imposition of said image onto others, is a particularly pressing task for two constituencies: college students and celebrities. There’s a social need, and desire, to sell yourself in order to get something back—namely, self-gratification and social capital.
But I’m accustomed to this kind of vanity. At some point in high school, I decided I would be pretty. This decision was one made out of exhaustion—I was simply tired of being an ugly duckling and learned what it means for one to reconstruct themselves. To make something from what they believe to be nothing. Perhaps there are two mirror stages—the first when one is a child and recognizes themself; the second when one looks in the mirror and wants to change what they see.
Unfortunately we can’t escape self-construction, or its failings. We want to control things and right now, as college students ages 18-23, we sometimes find we can only really control ourselves. Only in adulthood can the breadth of one’s power over others be truly realized. Whether it be through a government office position or having children, only in adulthood can one’s reign of terror broaden.
To me, the issues of self-construction and image become murky because they are closely followed by something else—imposition. In order for one’s image to be true, it needs to be validated by outside persons. In kind, people seek to form relationships with others whose images affirm their own. Successfully constructing a self is determined not by genuine character, but by presented qualities. In fact, the content of a person’s character often becomes secondary. I know of a person who tries, and fails, to enter the core of a certain…group. In her mind, she carries all the qualities necessary for entrance. The group disagrees. It has been interesting to observe the cognitive dissonance she willfully sustains. Though she tries so hard—and oh yes, she tries—it is a grueling task to force someone to adopt the image of who you think you are.
Maybe I’m being a bit too harsh on her. If one believes themself to be something for long enough, surely they’ll become it? Or at least something like it?
Towards the end of his life Lacan reformed his concept of the mirror stage—he no longer believed it to be a stage that occurred to an infant, but rather an enduring state of subjectivity that a person experiences throughout their life. Our realities constantly shift; we are always in the mirror stage. And Lacan is right. Although I’ve created this self, to create is not to know. I recognize this self but I do not know it. I merely describe.