The Truman Show Delusion: Television-Induced Psychosis in the Endtimes

A few years after time Peter Weir’s The Truman Show hit theaters, it’s primary conceit became hackneyed by comparison to the explosion of reality tv in the naughts. Shows like “Survivor,” “Big Brother,” and “The Apprentice” dominated trash tv to bewildering ratings. Who knew that people would want to tune into a bunch of boring twits at each other’s throats? It was around then that something curious started happening in psychiatric hospitals where patients were showing up reporting a bizarre new variety of paranoid psychosis. The patients reported that they believed that they were being secretly taped by hidden cameras and that their life was being broadcast to millions of riveted watchers quietly munching away on their popcorn in the dark. The patients said that the other people in their lives were actors – all of them in on the ruse – the patient alone was being punked by the producers of an invisible television program, conspiracy that they cannot crack or get out of. Psychiatrists appropriately called this the Truman Show delusion.

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This new phenomenon may be dismissed off-hand as mere garden variety mental illness, but it’s more than that. It’s an indicator how much culture is responsible for the production of our own subjectivity. It’s indicative of a broader social pattern of grave suspicion of social reality, a kind florid reifying of the post-truth world we’ve found ourselves in. Entertainment has conquered reality after all, and buried the world of facts with it.  Art or entertainment is no longer a reflection of the real world, but its hall of mirrors absorbing reality itself.  Only when everything became an absorbing simulation, reality became somehow more melodramatic.  It was emotional.  It was suspicious, meaner, dumber.  When television is the primary source of information, yet simultaneously the most suspect, it leaves one feeling somehow punked.  It’s a big reason everyone’s lost their minds.  We’re witnessing the collective menticide, a television-induced apocalypse.

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Seeing is no longer believing in the logic of the social contagion of the simulacrum where appearances dominate. Everyone is a liar, or a crisis actor at “staged” events. This whopper perhaps first hatched from the restless brain of Alex Jones about the Newtown school shooting. This paranoid fantasy, smacking of Truman Showism, has become mainlined by the NRA, right-wing churches and conservative media outlets in general. Their stinking suspicion that there are evil demons manipulating a virtual reality of actors and sets, reading from scripts produced by George Soros and the lizard people of the Hollywood and political “elite.” While Jones used to be a fringe figure, Fox News has fallen too into the paranoiac’s rabbit hole. Geraldo Rivera and Ann Coulter among those just recently claiming that the pipe bombs sent to CNN and up to a dozen or so liberal public figures from Obama to DeNiro were a “false flag” conjured by desperate Democrats.  Chuck Todd for some reason theorized it was a Russian conspiracy. Or the idea that the Judge Kavanaugh accuser Dr. Ford is a paid actor. Or that the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting survivors are actors too.   Or that climate change is a hoax conjured by bored scientists, or was it socialists, or the Chinese … or whomever. These wild paranoid claims becoming mainstream are ever more alarming.  Wild suspicions about reality are getting wilder and wilder as in the case of flat earthers.  Even Elon Musk is now saying that it’s pretty likely that we’re all living in a computer simulation generated by a sophisticated artificial intelligence. 

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The paranoiacs fashion themselves as crack detectives in a dark world.  Enemies lurk everywhere. And that only the few know the real truth while everyone else is deluded. They’ll say “one day, the truth will be revealed – you’ll see!”  Yet these dumbass tv-addicted Columbos can’t seem to get a break in their case. Their vertigo worsening each day by the ever-bleaker world reflected in mass media.  No truth will be revealed because truth is beside the point when bullshit is given the bullhorn.

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Obama used to try to calm fears by saying “reality asserts itself.” But now has said recently to his own bewilderment at politics’s bold-faced rejection of empirical reality, “We see the utter loss of shame among politicians who are caught in a lie and they just double down and lie some more.” In the past, attaining the truth may have seemed like a noble goal.  But perhaps a reality-based world is beside the point.

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There’s more at work here than mere lying. As philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s book On Bullshit points out that lying portends to cover up a truth. There is a tacit understanding that there is even a truth that needs cover up because lies serve specific functions. Bullshit on the other hand is more widespread. It is the art of not even caring what the truth is. To bullshit is to create (un)truth. The bullshit artist does not care what the truth is because truth is subservient to his basic emotional needs.

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Neocon operative of “Bush’s Brain” fame Karl Rove opened up this Pandora’s box when he said to Ron Suskind, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” There’s no better endorsement of the next step – bullshitting. They know we know it’s bullshit. What’s more is that no one has the power to contradict the tide of bullshit.

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The question in the media no longer became what is true, but how convincing are appearances. Pundits yak constantly with this meta-communication. How does one look? How moving is this demonstration? Did so-and-so “send the right signal?” Is he kneeling during the anthem? Is that a fist bump or a terrorist fist jab? Is he saluting with a coffee cup in his hand? Is so-and-so “credible?” Or as Thomas Frank writes,

“casual dishonesty of politics started to spill over into everyday life. The consolations of ideology became available to the millions, thanks to Facebook and Twitter and the political entertainers on cable news. Millions of Americans came to believe that everything was political and that therefore everything was faked; that everyone was a false accuser so why not accuse people falsely; that any complaint or objection could ultimately be confounded by some clever meme; that they or their TV heroes had discovered the made-up argument by which they could drown out that still small voice of reality. At right-wing rallies, one began to notice a gleeful denial of things that were obviously true.”

As Adam Curtis writes in his short Film About How All of Us Became Richard Nixon, that Nixon cast himself as a political outsider contemptuous of a conspiracy of elites. Hollywood, the Banks, the CIA, career politicians were “the establishment.” Nixon, in the grip of creeping paranoia, created an inner circle of “plumbers,” a private intelligence agency within the White House that wound up in the Watergate break-in. In the 1970s, there was a reality-based community, lead by the press, that was capable of bringing down Nixon. But historical irony would have it that Nixon was an unwitting pioneer. The society of the seventies could assert reality in a way that society today no longer can. Instead, the media itself, as well as vast swaths of the public has become Nixonian – suspicious of reality and contemptuous of “elites.” So suspicious that when we are faced with actual reality, or an earnest plan, or an earnest politician, we would do everything in our paranoiac will to tear them down.

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The trouble in the current situation isn’t that the current president is a master bullshitter. Because of course he is. He’s like Richard Nixon on bathsalts. The deeper trouble is that a critical mass of society no longer cares about truth at all. They need to sustain the bullshit. This is the circumstance today.

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The idea is that people don’t want truth. They actually want to be lied to. They want confirmations of their own little bubbles of reality, little essences of familiar tropes, myths, legends. Little cobbled-together feeling stories of self-validation in an ever more liquid an uncertain world. The prevalence of the victim/hero dynamic is replete in these paranoid fantasies of victory or martyrdom. America has taken on the character dimensions of Donald Trump. And he, by turn, is a product of it’s own political id.

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In the tribalistic thunderdome politics that has emerged, politicians have become champions of social outrage tournaments, like the knights at the Renaissance festival. No one in this logic even has a vision for a better world as long as they can stick it to the opposition upon waves of retweets. So people believe their own bubbles of truth. You have Fox People and MSNBC People, and then you have 4Chan People and Reddit People. But life in the upside down, life in a world without truth, has this one thing in common – they’re all suspicious, isolate, desperate, reactive, outraged. This is what remains in the wake of mass media culture unmoored from commonly held truths that used to be held together in the foundation of the paper of record. As publisher Harry Chandler wrote,

“Take away the newspaper – and this country of ours would become a scene of chaos. Without daily assurance of the exact facts – so far as we are able to know and publish them – the public imagination would run riot. Ten days without the daily newspaper and the strong pressure of worry and fear would through the people of this country into mob hysteria – feeding upon rumors, alarms, terrified by bugbears and illusions. We have become the watchmen of the night and of a troubled day.” (quoted in Chapo Trap Revolution).

For the conservative merchants of mass media outrage and paranoia the likes of Alex Jones, Dinesh D’Souza, Andrew Breitbart and Steve Bannon have packaged their bullshit paranoid delusions and peddled them online along with their MAGA hats, survivalist food kits and coco puff flavored bone broth energy drinks. The old bugbears of the John Birch Society and Cold War hysteria became infotainment, possessing whole mutations of classes of the flat-earthing tinfoil hat illiterati. A world where global warming is fake but Hillary’s secret pizza parlor pedophile ring is real. Birchers became birthers, which became Pizzagaters, which became Q-Anon, each iteration of the conspiracy bug exceeding the lunatic last.

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And then, astonishingly, almost to spite historian Richard Hofstadter’s 1960s-era thesis on the right’s monopoly on paranoid conspiracies and wackadoodle fears about water fluoridation and communist subversion, the liberal class too was sucked into a vortex of James Bond-esque Kremlingate paranoid fantasies. With nightmares fearing an overblown threat of a brownshirt takeover by skinheads and David Duke acolytes, they take to pink hat marches, and made it their mission to become a party of moral purity to offset the boorish excesses of the gropers across the aisle. Political correctness juiced at new levels, matching liberal obsessions over vaccinations, fad diets and cleanses.

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Liberal politics, long ago loosed from the struggle of the laboring classes, became more about symbolic battles fought on hills of identity politics rather than environmental or economic justice. Conservatives limply call it “cultural Marxism” – social care of representation without class-consciousness. It’s a misnomer. It’s not Marxism that’s behind social justice, but the mechanizations of cultural capital. Or, as Frederic Jameson titled his text on the matter Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. It’s not the conservative’s boogeyman, Marxists, that are bugging them, it’s global capitalism itself. But that is what remains of the liberal class – they are college educated, lanyard-wearing corporatists of the professional class. They are Tim Cooks, not Che Guavaras.  But such is our unreality. (1)

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I haven’t met anyone or heard of anyone who isn’t basically exhausted by the whole breathless suspicious semiotic shit storm of politics today. We’ve all become Richard Nixon, perhaps terrified that we’re all becoming tinfoil hat Americans, our fragile dignity assaulted, our low flame blown out; no longer able to endure the maelstrom of simulacra, the maelstrom of mass madness carrying a dumb tidal wave of bullshit. Reality no longer graspable; it’s invented, suspect. No wonder most of us feel the need to return to the mythic elusive time when things were simple and plain when America was great and brimming with a seeming bedrock of truth, certainty and optimism. As W.B. Yeats wrote after the torrent of the Great War, “Turning and turning in the widening gyre the falcon cannot hear the falconer; things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…”

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The seismic ramifications here put in question our own humanity, of how comprehensible we are to ourselves. What kind of people are we becoming in this society seemingly making due on sci-fi nightmares from the 1960s? Are we doomed to be seized by television in some kind of Clockwork Orange chair, eyes-pried open in a grand Ludavicko experiement, viddying well filling our rapt rassodocks, reconditioned, re-molded, becomes embittered in symbolic conflicts, culture and info wars. Our eyes peeled while simultaneously screaming, “make it stop!”

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So people are waking up ready to be outraged. Smartphone reach, on constant alert, the access to the outrage closer than ever. One no longer needs to walk to the curb in their bathrobe to get the paper. Tweets zips instantly to the enraptured nodal feedback participant from a madman on the pot. This is not a matter of simple online etiquette, but a matter in which the logic of online networks have created a new kind of society that is constantly wired.  Ever more, people have been seized by this system, on edge.

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But we’re not victims necessarily of this digital gauntlet of baloney. The more insidious revelation here is that we are complicit with every click, every outrage, every reaction.  Intimate parts of people’s thoughts, dreams, hopes and fears are drained, sucked into the feedback loops of the internet. The word “Trump”, like a virus from outer space invading not just the phone, but the office space, the dinner table and the bedroom. The chatter and hum of the television echoing in the mind long after turning the screen off. (2)

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It is the Baudrillardian trajectory of humanity in the sense that he saw people’s primary engagement is not with God, or even themselves, but with a preoccupation with signs, images and information. In a sense, people are not people any more, but rather like network nodes regurgitating memes, replicating signs. And feeling helpless and hopeless all the while. The outrage growing ever more, suspecting that all along there are puppet masters of society just beyond view. But the puppet masters may not be George Soros or the Illuminati or the Elders of Zion. The masters are the software, the algorithms, and bots – orchestra conductors of the digital universe.

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R.D. Laing once asked “Is love possible? Is freedom possible? Is the truth possible? Is it possible to be one’s self with another human being? Do human beings even exist?”  In the Baudrillaridan dystopia of the present, the answer is no, not really.  So long homo sapien sapien, hello homo facebookus.  For so long we wondered how the internet could help human progress, we forgot to ask how the internet would change human beings.  How we’d change our society to match the algorithms of the Googleverse into a kind of television-induced psychosis.  And how we’d modify ourselves in new levels of reactivity and dependency morphing into nihilism.  The delusional rage of withered beings growing in step with the proliferation of this semiotic matrix.

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That is most cruel consequence of this post-truth age. At the end of the Truman Show, (I almost wrote Trumpman Show), Jim Carrey at least understood he was a human being.  At least he understood there was a limit to his world, and that the limit came in the form of a physical wall. How quaint – indeed, how positively retro – it is to have physical walls to cross.  It’s much harder to cross the vague boundaries of a phony world.  Where are the true boundaries today back to a firm reality or humanity?  Is that desire to return to self itself even real?  What’s left when we ourselves have gone from apes to apps?

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Endnotes

  1. This is what remains in a world where the neoliberal political consensus that told us there was no alternative to the grand plan of small government, tax breaks for the rich and austerity for the poor. It’s a cynical system where government has abdicated social power to the invisible hands of the market. Where the prevailing belief is that government is a hapless, impotent, unresponsive dung heap, leaving the people – and the environment – without any protection from the worst of capitalism’s predatory excesses. Where we accept that our politicians’ motivations to enter public life are sole purpose of lining their own pockets. Then are not surprise they give breaks to their wealthy friends and sabotage government for the people saying “see, government doesn’t work.” It makes for a depressing spin cycle of impotent cynicism and rage. There is no surprise in our seeing it plummeting into a cryptofasist plutocratic neofeudal rentier society. Michael Lewis in The Fifth Risk, shows how severely understaffed the Departments of Agriculture, Energy, the EPA, the State Department, and others are. Social responsibility has been outsourced. This government is so impotent that it has left to teenagers to take on the gun lobby and clean up the plastic ocean. It has left GoFundMe to be the third largest health insurer and given us a new term – “the share economy.” Yet these realities barely register in the grand narrative, overshadowed by enraged pseudoevents.)
  2. As researcher Nicholas Carr, author of “Is Google Making us Stupid?”, Utopia is Creepy and In the Shallows shows, the online world is not conducive to depth or length of thought. Instead, it is a pachinko machine of impulses, whims, distractibility swimming in overwhelmingly shallow junk culture with no end in sight.