- A Field Guide to Imaginary Idiocy
In Francis Ford Coppola's 1983 film Rumble Fish, two troubled young brothers engage in a philosophical discussion while they gaze into a fish tank at a Tulsa, Oklahoma, pet store. The elder brother, whom everyone calls The Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke), explains to the younger, Rusty James (Matt Dillon), that Siamese fighting fish will try to attack their own image when they are shown a mirror: "You know, if you lean a mirror up against the glass, they try to kill themselves fighting their own reflection."
Such behavior in animals is Imaginary in the Lacanian sense—which is not to say that it is a matter of animals daydreaming or conjuring up nonexistent scenarios in in their minds. Rather, the response of the fish to their reflection is Imaginary because it is image driven, induced by the presence of a likeness. The fact that the scene in the pet store is both the source of the film's title and the only sequence filmed in color (everything in the film except for the vibrant red and turquoise fish is shot in black and white) sets the characters' strange discussion in high relief. It is not difference that drives young men such as these to engage in acts of aggression, but instead a dyadic similarity that induces the violence. Indeed, to anyone who has seen Rumble Fish, the mise-en-scène of the film resembles nothing so much as a series of hometown fishbowls, circumscribed arenas of aimlessness and ennui that the characters strain but fail to escape, turning instead to various forms of combat and defensive display.
Judging by their sheer number on social media platforms such as Twitter and Reddit, short videos and gifs of animals "rumbling" with [End Page 1] their own image in a mirror are endlessly amusing to humans. Contemporary meme culture encourages users of social media to trade videos of kittens and puppies panicking as they catch a glimpse of their semblance and responding as if it were another real animal. Part of the point of these brief, decontextualized clips—not unlike The Motorcycle Boy's thinly veiled existential musing on Siamese fighting fish—is to reveal to viewers the essence of their own subjectivity. When a dog barks at its reflection and scurries away on a slippery floor, or when a cat arches its back in an instinctual gesture of menace, we witness the idiocy of the Imaginary order at its purest, but in a setting in which the stakes for humans are very low. We gain a sense of superiority or mastery by viewing these Imaginary mirror confrontations in a controlled, tamed-down, bestiary form, where the worst that can happen is that a pet slips and falls.
Quite a bit more alarming than these videos of animal behavior is the human experience of being in a strange locale—perhaps as a guest in someone else's home—and walking down a hallway in the dark, only to unexpectedly encounter one's reflection in a large mirror. The shock of such an encounter derives from its silence. With no sound to warn us of a human presence, we suddenly see someone over there; we possibly jump or gasp in a startled way, but fairly immediately (not gradually, like animals) realize the idiocy of our mistake. Humans find such encounters humorous, but only after the fact, when we may be inclined to share the ridiculousness of our mirror encounter with friends (e.g., over breakfast the next day), just as we do with funny animal videos.
In both cases, scary, mirror-based Imaginary encounters would be of no interest if we were not viewing them from a loftier position, a vantage from which such responses appear laughably stupid. Our amusement derives from a basic ontological contrast: unlike animals, whose reactive posturing is exclusively Imaginary, we humans have the capacity to view the Imaginary from the perspective of the Symbolic and thus to judge Imaginary behaviors as ludicrous or degraded.
A primary goal of this essay is to give this comparatively inferior, essentially dyadic mode of human engagement a name, "Imaginary idiocy," and...