Rear-view mirror: vision, time, modernity and the anthropocene

Document Type


Publication details

Garbutt, R 2017, 'Rear-view mirror: vision, time, modernity and the anthropocene', Continuum, vol. 31, no. 2, pp. 277-284.

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Peer Reviewed



The rear-view mirror is a metaphoric favourite in popular culture. This exploratory essay positions the rear-view mirror as, predominantly, a quintessentially modern device for reimagining the past and its relationship to the present and future. Combined with that icon of modern economies, the motorcar, it gives a sense of a paved journey towards the future while from the driver’s seat allowing a framed, receding view of the past. With distance that past can be critically held: ‘it now makes sense’. This sensemaking relies upon a spatial rendering of time that makes past, present and future concrete. However, this dominant metaphor of the rear-view mirror in popular culture is supplemented by less certain uses: it can also evoke the uncanny; bring spectres from the past into the present; or heighten our enmeshment with structural power. This essay explores this terrain of the rear-view mirror in examples from radio, song, music video and film, and then questions the efficacy of the metaphor in the anthropocene. The rear-view mirror, then, is an entry point for considering our engagement with the past, present and future, and how and where is our gaze directed and for whom.

Additional information

An early version of this essay was presented at the conference ‘Looking back to look forwards’ at the University of Barcelona, December 2012.

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