Our couple shows us those parts of ourselves that we are least likely to see, but from a different angle and through a distorting mirror.
In July, Merriam-Webster Dictionary Advertisement On X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, that “‘doppelganger’ is one of the most searched terms.”
The ‘doppelganger’ – defined in English by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “a person who resembles another, or the ghostly counterpart of a living person” – has suddenly become inevitable. Social media platforms are filled with videos of “that moment” when a pair of identical strangers come face to face at a friend’s wedding or at a Las Vegas pool or on a plane. Taylor Swift look-alike has 1.6 million followers on TikTok, while the real Swift plays multiple versions of herself Music video for “Anti-Hero”, Rachel Weisz plays herself in the series “Dead Ringers,” a remake of the movie “Dead Ringers,” and the latest season of Netflix’s Black Mirror begins with an episode in which computer-generated versions of celebrities pretend to be ordinary people. Let’s pretend.
Violence has even broken out between the ‘doppelgängers’. Last year, a woman in Germany was accused of murdering her lookalike, a glamorous beauty blogger, so she could use the body to fake her death. And in February, a Russian-born New Yorker was sentenced for attempted murder: She poisoned cheesecakes meant for her look-alike in hopes of stealing her identity.
Although the lookalikes make me dizzy, I find the sudden appearance of the doubles strangely comforting. For years I have personally struggled with a problem I consider very special: being constantly confused with Naomi Wolf, another writer and political analyst named Naomi, even though I bear little resemblance to her (and I noticed that the same thing happened to them and me). Wolf was once known for best-selling feminist books such as “The Beauty Myth” and her controversial role as an advisor to Al Gore’s presidential campaign. Recently, he has distinguished himself by widely spreading medical misinformation related to vaccines, as well as appearing on a daily pro-Trump show hosted by Steve Bannon.
Sometimes I wonder what I did to cause my ‘doppelganger’ troubles. With popular culture increasingly resembling a house of mirrors in which duplicates, fake beings and the like are endlessly refracted, many of us may soon be facing versions of the ‘doppelganger’ illusion. What role does this proliferation of doubles, twins and clones play? ‘Doppelgangers’, a combination of the German words “doppel” (double) and “ganger” (walker or wanderer), are often considered a warning or omen.
In an attempt to better understand the caveats of my experience with a lookalike, I spent several afternoons immersing myself in the vast repository of lookalike films. One that was particularly helpful was “Us” by Jordan Peele. This 2019 horror film imagines a society much like ours, but located on top of a shadowy underworld, inhabited by all the same deformed people who live on the surface. Every activity of those above is reflected in the darkness and misery of those below. Until the underground ‘doppelgangers’ get tired and organize a rebellion.
A frightened character asks, who are these underground people?
“Are Americans”A tremendous response is heard.
The film has been interpreted as an allegory of capitalism’s relationship with racial and other oppression, which entails the exploitation of the shadow world for the comforts of the few. That interpretation took on particular strength during the pandemic when I watched the film. Those of us who were part of the quarantined class were able to shelter at home because we were cared for by “essential workers,” many of whom could not be absent due to illness. The couple often play this role, providing viewers and readers with uncomfortable passages in their story. By showing us a character opposite his or her ‘doppelganger’, we get in touch with parts of ourselves that we can at least see, but from a different angle and through a distorting mirror.
Perhaps this is why representations of duplicity seem to emerge in moments of extreme violence and change. The first important theoretical work on this topic was an essay titled “Der Doppelgänger”., Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank, whose mentor at the time was Sigmund Freud. This essay, which stated that ‘doppelgängers’ were tools for expressing sublime desires and fears, was written in 1914, just as the First World War began. In a 1971 republication of the essay, Rank’s translator, Harry Tucker Jr., asked: “Is there any connection between the great upheavals of society, their concomitant and disturbing effects on the individual, and the interest of the literate public?” Are the couples portrayed in an imaginative manner?
There is no doubt that the rise of Nazism and the atrocities of the Holocaust inspired another such wave, as artists used doubles to confront the transformation of once liberal and open societies. Children became soldiers. Collaborators of murderers. Neighbor in the crowd. As if a switch had been flipped. It is the intimacy and familiarity of these changes that is so ominous, and what is more intimate and familiar than the duplicity of a person?
Once again, we are at a historical juncture where our physical and political worlds are changing too rapidly and with too many consequences for our minds to easily comprehend. That’s why I decided to start seeing my own ‘doppelganger’ as a narrow window through which to observe forces that I consider dangerous and that may be difficult to confront directly.
Instead of worrying that people would think she and I were one and the same, I became interested in how she had become the ‘doppelganger’ of her past self. Since I’d been obsessed with Wolf for almost a decade and a half, I knew she’d been involved in conspiracy culture for years (I’d sometimes be harassed online for the positions she took).
Before the pandemic, its underlying values seemed stable: feminism, sexual freedom, democracy, basic liberalism. Then, suddenly, they weren’t. In just a few months, I’ve seen him go from questioning the use of masks in schools to questioning the election results with Bannon. He then engaged in revisionism on January 6, supporting the Supreme Court’s attack on abortion rights, posting about the firearms he owns and further warning that “they are declaring war on us.”
Of course, this is a phenomenon that goes beyond Wolf. Many of us have seen it in people we know, once respected and even love now. We tell each other that we are stuck in “the Labyrinth,” lost in conspiratorial fantasies, adopting apocalyptic language, and seemingly inaccessible to reason or affection.
These changes are redrawing political maps, moving traditional liberals and parts of the New Age to the far right. A convoy of trucks in Canada in January 2022. Conspiracy theories led to an attempted coup in Germany later that year. The war that my ‘doppelganger’ warns about in the United States.
Which brings me to the form of ‘doppelganger’ that concerns me most: the fascist clown state that is the ever-present twin of Western liberal democracies, constantly threatening to swallow us in a fire of selective belonging and cruel contempt. Is. The image of the ‘doppelganger’ has been used for centuries to warn us about shadow versions of our collective selves, about these potentially monstrous futures.
Have our ‘doppelgängers’ captured us? Not yet, at least not all of them. But the pandemic, superimposed on so many other emergencies that have been suppressed for so long, has taken humanity to a place we have not been before, a place close but different, a kind of ‘doppelganger’ world. This is what explains the strangeness that so many of us are trying to put into words: everything is so familiar and yet just a little bit out of place. Unusual people, complex politics, and even, as artificial intelligence grows, the difficulty of distinguishing who is real and what is what.
That feeling of disorientation – not knowing who to trust or whom – that we tell each other about? Who among friends and loved ones seem strange? That’s because our world has changed, but, as if we’re collectively jetlagged, most of us remain in tune with the place and self with the rhythms and habits we left behind. Now is the time for you to be careful.
By showing us the supremacist values and violent behaviors that pose the greatest threat to our society, doppelgangers can nudge us toward more stable ground.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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