Author of the Week / 6 December 2022

Mirrors, Here Around Us

Author of the Week: Serbia

Literature and the digital

Modern cultural theorists have pointed out that the postmodern world is faced with a state of uncertainty which is permanent and irreducible, and today’s man lives in an atmosphere of ambient fear[1] marked by absence of stability and continuity, which used to provide certainty to an individual. The deterioration of former firm social norms and the replacement of the so-called slow living with fast life which offers one incredible rise as well as breakneck falls, have shaken the foundations of the old world and deeply undermined the position of the individual and the family in the world. Hence, it is not surprising that the interest of both science and art has shifted towards identity issues, precisely because identity as such has been destabilised.[2]

In art, the question of identity has often been associated with the concept of the other, in contrast with whom our own identity is measured and determined. And while the ancient image of Narcissus’ reflection in the water used to lead us to the abysses of me-double, today’s man, who stares at the screen of his mobile phone or computer, is also faced with you-doubles.

The world which is becoming increasingly governed by screens, that is, by a distorted image recontextualised in the editing process (even if it is just a simple selection), is inevitably reflected in literary texts but also invites philosophical and ontological reflections:

The screen itself, as a thin surface onto which an image is projected or on which it is shaped, as a simulacrum of a two-dimensional surface which simulates the real, three-dimensional world or creates an illusion of virtual four-dimensionality, takes the place previously occupied by the subject and the object, while at the same time it is both. In the field of crossed views (outside/inside, the subject that looks/the object that is looked at), that is, in the visual production of presence, the screen is the centre of the world, it occupies the place which, in humanistic interpretations, used to be occupied by the subject-object relationship. In post-structuralist interpretations, that place is occupied by text – the whole world is text, and reality is the product of (‘mixed’) discourses. So, we live in McLuhan’s world of ‘omnipresence’, in Baudrillard’s world of ‘ecstasy of communication’ and ‘fatal strategies’, in ‘digital promiscuity’ of endless courtship between the screen image and the view, one screen image and the other screen image. In it, therefore, screen-images are not certain monolithic and closed entities but hybrid forms of virtuality which, in the processes of interaction, crossing, melting and mixing, constantly outgrow themselves: the relationship between man and his environment has once again changed under the influence of the new media technology. Language is a constituent part of reality, and the same relationship is implied by the screen itself – between the virtual image, i.e. the media and reality.[3]

The problem of communication is an integral part of this thematic scope. I, which is actually getting away from itself and from the other through the media, is also frequently thematised in modern Serbian poetry. The reductionism of language, which is present in the electronic media, is referred to by Ana Ristović’s poem ‘Receives. Sends (Fear of One’s Own Manuscript)’. The lyrical subject sends a letter to a non-defined receiver, but:

Not via the computer,
but via ordinary mail, which does not count
anymore. Now people talk using bright dots:
one by the other, and not a single letter anywhere.

Similarly, in the poem ‘As If We Were not Even the Earth Pigeon Feathers by Updike (Fear of Snow)’ the spatial separation between the lyrical subject and the one to whom he refers (Here and There) is underlined by the fact that, instead of a common lamp, they are lit by the light of a mobile phone (instead of, as one might expect, a proper fire, hearth, fireplace or a telephone lamp). On the phone screen, the letters look more and more like the traces of pigeon feet / in the snow, they are reduced to crosses, and the message is scaled down to complete absence and blankness, which is here associated with the communicative, the creative and artistic, and also with the elementary, physical barrenness which neither your children nor mine are born from.

In the poetry of Ana Ristović, the topic of alienation, often connected with images of pronounced corporeality and disconnected parts of the body, is closely connected with the problems of communication and understanding. True to her poetic process in which she starts from veristic details and gradually moves to questions of man’s existence and survival on the Earth, Ristović, in her collection Hands in Hands (Arhipelag, 2019), sharpens her criticism of modern society and the order in which information overload makes the individual unable to face himself or herself and others. In that sense, a very important poem is ‘A Good Suit’. The motif of blankness, which is also encountered elsewhere in her poetry, is transferred to a new, electronic environment, so that the blankness of the paper is replaced with a shiny blankness of complete silence and / absence of communication. In a mobile phone shop, which is a future cemetery, the silent screens are proudly erected tombstones (metaphorically, instead of a comparative expression, it clearly shows the sharpness of a standpoint). Their clear lines and the pure simplicity of the black plate (black and white here are not opposed but equalised in the absence of colour, i.e. light – life) are an expression of a reduced need for the other. The mythical Narcissus who looks at his reflection in a clear stream is replaced with a modern somnambulistic Narcissus who dies making a selfie – trying to posthumously record and save / his beautified face.[4] And like the distorted reflection in the water, the reflection on the screen is not true either, but no one cares anymore about authenticity, truth and, ultimately, ethics:

Moreover, someone tries to sell to you
to point out that
exactly that tombstone
is the right one for the relationship
you are trying to establish with the world

Although it is clear that exactly with it
every touch of the other
is doomed to failure.

Likewise, in the poem ‘Decency’, we read about the hypocrisy of modern society, whose ultimate victims are children: while in the evening they are biting tablet-screens, so fine / that they don’t see, don’t hear, don’t anticipate, don’t know – / which is, let’s face it, the highest degree of decency –.

The poem ‘Unforgotten’ deals with the glut of information that burdens our memory:

Nothing is forgotten
only in the world in which
you have to know more and more
and remember less and less, unimportant things
I persistently delete, delete, delete
and sometimes, dear,
I overdelete.

It is clear that constant deleting will again bring us to the above-mentioned blankness and absence of memory, personal or collective, thus opening the abysses of a dehumanised world.

The importance of the motifs of self-reflection in Ana Ristović’s poetry is also evident from how often they are hinted at, whilst their deeper symbolism becomes obvious in the wider context. Thus, in the poem ‘Autumn in My City (Fear of the Change of Weather)’, we find an image of a rainbow created in a pond of petrol, and not in the sky, where it does not exist anymore. Here we see a clear contrast between tall and short, clean and dirty, and sophisticated and banal, whilst in the poem ‘Summer (Fear of a Different View)’ that window behind which there is no one is reflected differently in the polish on the lyrical subjects big toe nails.[5]

It is easy to find examples in the works of other authors, Ristović’s peers, which show that the questions of communication, or rather the impossibility of communication, the loneliness of modern man and the alienation manifested in the most diverse forms of the grotesquely perceived world. Similar motif variations are in evidence in the poetry of Petar Matović, but also in the novel Silver Fog Descends by Srđan Srdić, a novelist born in the seventies, like Ana Ristović.

In Petar Matović’s poetry collection From a Happy Republic (Matović, 2017), there is a poem titled ‘Doubt About Quality’, in which the topics of fear and memory are brought in direct connection with the image mediated by the screen which, of course, in its own way breaks and reshapes the message which reaches the final recipient:

At the beginning we shall remember
in HD resolution we shall live
in fear of pixellation
weather forecasts will foresee
noise in signal transmission
how to maintain the picture made of invisible
points in passive areas
we shall ask for a frequency
in which there will be no blurred
faces of footballers numbers
on jerseys at a run

This world will not hurt
that won’t exist except for anxiety
like an eternal doubt
about quality and insecurity

The motif of reflection and distorted image appears in other poems from this collection. In the poem ‘Reflections’, we read that the city exists / only as reflections of buildings on glass, and in the poem ‘Sand Storm’ there is a warning of a twisted reflection of the rear-view mirror and the traps of a mirror system:

Don’t
forget how subjects move outside
technologies. Carefully use the mirror system.
Behind you sometimes in the heat the lakes of quartz
will arise: the curves of the reflection will follow you constantly,
blinding life from the rear-view mirror.

Likewise, the reality seen through the eye of a camera (fish eye), and hence distorted (bulging), as well as the mediated, digitalised world are the subject of the poem ‘Webcam’. The poem ‘Clearances’[6] thematises blankness, no longer that of sheets of paper but that of screens, and the loneliness of an individual whose first next of kin is a machine, along with a million invisible organisms – a microworld settled between the keys of a computer keyboard:

I have
neither a wife nor a pet, I am naked, only
a monitor and cables. The world in which I
do not participate I record by moving
words on the screen; enough for light
and doubt...
Silence is becoming our
ocean, our flood.

The era of the ‘omni-screen’ in which we live is filled not only with television, computer, telephone and tablet screens, but also with those used for monitoring CCTV and GPS systems. Modern philosophy rightly speaks about digitalised networks of a new screenocracy and does not miss the opportunity to remark that our whole life, ‘all our relationships with the world and the others are becoming increasingly mediatised via a multitude of interlinks through which screens incessantly converge, communicate and interconnect’.[7]

In Srđan Srdić’s novel, Silver Fog Descends (Srdić, 2017), two dominant thematic planes are isolation (loneliness, alienation) and communication (with reference to all its components: sender, message, receiver), that is, the impossibility of understanding. The main character is called О, or Korovjev, as he calls himself. The fragmentary structure of the novel, its stammering, incompleteness and discontinuity, are a formal expression of the difficult communication and its eventual demise and absence. The novel is written in the reduced language of electronic media, pointing at the same time to its two faces: ludicity, on the one hand, and reduction on the other. As with Ana Ristović’s lyrical subject, Srdić’s characters feel that ‘Photographs cause trepidation and anguish, anxiety’, and the story is mediated via the computer screen, which simultaneously facilitates and impoverishes communication. In this novel, too, the screen becomes a replacement for the old-fashioned mirror, and looking at it allows one to look at the other: ‘I was on that side of the screen in front of which he was sitting, I was separated: I was a reflection.’ A little later in the novel we read about ‘The man in the isolation of the screen, a neurotic, imprisoned fashion model. Who has jumped out of himself.’ We can rightly ask ourselves whether this neurotic fashion model is that somnambulistic Narcissus from Ana Ristović’s poetry.

In Srdić’s prose, man’s attachment to personal and collective foundations, to other people, is not only superficial or wrong, it does not exist at all, and so the characters experience nervous breakdowns because of negative rootedness.

Communication breakdown first takes place in relationships with the dearest ones; the father and the son ask about the wife/mother, the heroine Sonja: ‘Who is she? Who? Somebody else is living with us.’

As in Ana Ristović’s and Petar Matović’s poetry, the transposition of the mirror into the screen in Srdjan Srdić’s prose is very important for expressing the topic of mediated reality and loss of privacy, and for dissecting inner changes experienced by contemporary man. Let us pay attention to the description of the mirror brought by the handymen to the room of the married couple:

We used to wake up in front of the mirror, the reflection was larger than us, it covered the windows in the back, daily landscapes in the windows, or nights, in the plane of the sixth floor, none of them the same and each for itself, and the two of us in everything; the two of us, even if either was missing. The beginnings of conscious days in the mirror, like a screen which enters everything because we ourselves agreed upon it, upon that infallible X-ray, a sensor on the opposite wall; as if we have defined our future by a certain validation, registration of a reflection, something that must be passed so that time would let us in.

However, it is hard to avoid the impression that there is an essential difference between Ana Ristović’s poems and Srđan Srdić’s prose, in spite of their similar thematic and motif cores. The mirror of Srdić’s literary universe, as Ivan Radosavljević correctly notices[8], is dominantly dark, whilst there are lighter shades in the world reflected in Ana Ristović’s poetry: in that world, there is still room for a direct encounter between two beings, for unmediated realisation of interpersonal relationships.


[1] Zigmunt Bauman: “Stvaranje i prevazilaženje stranca”. Translated from the English by Predrag Novakov. Stranac u humanističkom nasleđu. Edited by Dušan Marinković and Dušan Ristić. Novi Sad: Mediterran Publishing, 2017, p. 62–85.

[2] Erik K. Erikson: Childhood and society. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974.

[3] Sonja Briski-Uzelac: “Ekran-slika u doba globalne vizualne hibridnosti.” Zeničke sveske, Časopis za društvenu fenomenologiju i kulturnu dijalogiku 18 (2013), p. 97–105.

[4] The narcissism of today’s man is increasing due to the possibilities offered by modern technologies that lead him from a consumer to a creator, producer of the virtual world. He is not just a receiver of a mediated, and thus deformed picture of the world provided by modern technologies, but an active participant in that world, and its builder: through the photograph, that is, the story he posts online, the modern Narcissus participates in the production of a parallel reality.

[5] These two poems in the book Around Zero are placed one after the other.

[6] Clearance/Clearances, it seems that the authors refer us, by their titles, to an emptied, dehumanized world, a clearance announced already in Eliot’s “The Waste Land”.

[7] Gilles Lipovetsky, cited in Sonja Briski-Uzelac: “Ekran-slika u doba globalne vizualne hibridnosti.” Zeničke sveske, Časopis za društvenu fenomenologiju i kulturnu dijalogiku 18 (2013), p. 103.

[8] Ivan Radosavljević: “O prirodi ljudskih (ne)mogućnosti” (introduction). Srebrna magla pada. Srđan Srdić. Kikinda: Partizanska knjiga, 2017, p. 255–258.

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