GLASS IS A BARRIER
We would not need glass if there wasn’t a conflict between two environments. “Trusting glass” is an oxymoron. Glass is used to simultaneously protect oneself and spy on the adversary. A window glass protects from the climate while allowing for a view. An aquarium glass or the glass between the predator enclosure and the visitor area in a zoo helps retain an environment and observe without risk. A bird does not see glass, it hits a window and dies. Glass is a human-made instrument of power.
When using glass to describe oneself – as a glass receptacle, a crystal ball, imprisoned under a glass dome – we usually try to convey brittleness, a need to protect ourselves from the environment while still remaining very vulnerable due to the two-way nature of power. We are afraid that we are too transparent. That each blow might shatter us.
It has its allure, however: there is no love without vulnerability; without smearing our blood and guts onto the other we are merely showing ourselves behind a glass, being completely visible, yet protecting ourselves and the other from total bonding and intertwining. This pain and beauty inspires art forms in their highest and lowest styles to experiment with the illusion of absolute transparency, be it using real glass or virtual, photo or video cameras – human as a zoo animal, an exposition that is taken out from the rest of its species; on the one hand, it is a humiliating, a totally vulnerable position; on the other, empowering – taking on the role of the protagonist, reducing the viewer to an anonymous mass. But what’s important here is the material or imaginary barrier. In theater, they talk about the “fourth wall”, which is essentially the same metaphor for glass, a window. We observe, but they “do not know” that we do.
Glass can also be an element that symbolizes something unreachable or solidified. To have glassy eyes is to have an impenetrable gaze that gives away no emotions. Ice as naturally occurring glass: to turn one’s heart into ice means to make oneself invulnerable, not receptive to any ripple of emotion, even metaphors of “ice queens” of different sorts, although here the focus is more on temperature and not on glassy invulnerability.
When the first automobiles were created, they used regular glass for their windows that in case of an accident broke into large sharp-edged shards so that if the casualty didn’t die as a direct consequence of the crash, they would die from the fatal wounds inflicted by the shards of glass. Today, we use tempered glass; in more demanding cases, laminated glass. Still, however necessary is glass to the person that operates with it and manipulates it, it starts to resist human power the first chance it gets; it can change from a weapon to the aggressor itself, rising up against misuse and becoming lethal as a mistake is made.
This, of course, is how any other resource acts. It wasn’t too long ago when we switched glass with the more durable and cheaper transparent plastic, and we’re already drowning in plastic residue in the most serious sense of the word. There is also, of course, the matter of glass as an illusion – as a reflector, a simulator that turns any phenomenon into a tangible 2D image. Narcissus looked at his reflection on the surface of a pond for so long that he died – a poignant metaphor, yet unconvincing psychologically. In the era of reflective surfaces, or even more so, of video and photo technology, we are all in one way or another narcissists on the brink of starvation, always aware that we might be observed, just as we ourselves constantly observe others. It is a two-way panopticon. Glass as a reflective surface makes us modify our demeanor, it forces us to fabricate our authenticity. More than ever before are we extremely conscious of how we look – we think about it constantly, most probably many times more than our ancestors centuries ago. If every thought is an action, then what action does thinking about your appearance represent? Let him who is without sin cast the first stone. Those that live in glass buildings should not throw stones at all.
Psychologically, however, it seems that the more we deal with surfaces, the facades of ourselves and the others, the more we lose vigilance over the real substance. With each uploaded photo, with each movement on the web, we give away more of our privacy; when adjusting our appearance when passing by the display windows, we seem to forget the glassy-eyed cameras that watch our every step. We fool ourselves with the idea that we still have the power, that we are the observers; or sometimes vice versa – that someone would like to observe us, as we might seem interesting to someone, while the truthful reality is just that we are being observed all the time, we are the security risk, but most of the time it’s not a neighbor, nor satellites wandering in the heavens, nor god, not even our closest friend that is watching us. And devoting ourselves to glass surfaces we often lose sight of what actually happens behind them and we self-forgettingly start to observe ourselves as someone else would. Glass is a human-made power instrument, but are any of us still the people that have the power?