This article was written on 31 May 2013, and is filled under Theory.

Truman Show Syndrome, Don Quixote, and Fiction

In recent years psychiatrists have begun to identify a new condition they are calling Truman Show Syndrome, after the 1998 Jim Carrey movie about a man whose life is the subject of a television show without his being aware of it. The symptom of this syndrome is the patient’s persistent belief against all evidence to the contrary that his or her life is the subject of a reality TV show, that his or her actions are being filmed 24 hours a day, and that his or her friends, relatives, and even closest family members are members of the cast, all of whom are in the know, and all of whom are conspiring to keep the patient in the dark about the true nature of his or her existence.

The problem of evidence rehearsed by Truman Show Syndrome is symptomatic to a culture-wide philosophical conundrum concerning the way we relate to what we call reality. The first thing to note is that the delusion itself mimics the basic structure of philosophical idealism’s primal fantasy and ultimate vanishing point: solipsism, or a radical skepticism as to the existence of anything outside of my own mind. Once I accept the proposition that whatever I cognize is an idea, be it an idea proper or an idea of an external object, it becomes impossible to establish the existence of anything other than my ideas. In a similar move, those who suffer from Truman Show Syndrome or any similarly structured delusion already submit the very question of “external” evidence to the rules of their game.

The first point we can glean from the analogy between the basic structure of what I’ll call theatrical delusions and the solipsistic conundrum of philosophical idealism is that sufferers of the former are for some reason taking too seriously the problem posed by the latter. In other words, while solipsism poses an irreducible difficulty once certain philosophical presuppositions have been accepted, even philosophers who accept those presuppositions do not usually for that reason alter their behavior to reflect the conundrum in which they find themselves trapped. For suffers of the delusions, in contrast, what would seem a merely curious byproduct of modern philosophy’s approach to the world has become an issue requiring active intervention.

The person suffering from a theatrical delusion is thus in the position of taking too seriously a primal presupposition of the modern world. This presupposition is theatricality: the experience of the space of my existence as being constructed along a fissure between the world of a character and the world of the actor playing that character. Events in a character’s world have no impact on the actor’s world, and vice versa, because the frame separating those worlds has been, to use a term from the sociologist Erving Goffman, keyed. This means that the performative efficacy of actions within a given frame on spectators outside that frame has been suspended. While those actions remain fully comprehensible, they do not have the same effect on external spectators as they have on internal participants.

Michel Foucault famously speculated at the outset of Les mots et les choses that Cervantes’s biting account of insanity in his character Don Quixote was really the critical commentary of one episteme, or historical structure of knowledge, on another: in this case Don Quixote represented the insertion into an episteme organized around the classificatory grid of knowledge of a consciousness that still judged the world in terms of resemblances. Foucault’s reading thus presents Don Quixote as an example of insanity insofar as the knight fails to key the frames his contemporaries are keying already by second nature. But whereas for Foucault Don Quixote is a subject who has failed to adapt to the modern world’s representational presupposition, for me he is a subject who has taken too seriously modernity’s reigning metaphor.

Like the sufferer of Truman Show Syndrome, Quixote is convinced that everything that transpires in his world does so for his sake: namely, that it is the work of an evil enchanter who has bewitched him on several occasions, and has transformed his beloved lady Dulcinea del Toboso into a crass country wench. Any attempt on the part of others to lead Quixote out of his delusion is trumped by the fact that evidence against the delusion can be immediately marshaled in favor of the delusion. If others do not see what he does it is because the enchanter has ensured that they do not. The enchanter, in other words, has taken on the role of theater director, that great master of illusions who ensures that the stagecraft comes off without a hitch.

Quixote’s insanity, then, far from a failure to adapt to modern theatricality, is rather a case of a subject who has taken theatricality all too seriously. At the dawning of the modern episteme Cervantes creates a character who exemplifies the extreme of a new subjective spectrum: a character who has failed to install at the core of his cognitive structure that certain point of absolute uncertainty that guarantees a minimal distance between the world as it is for me and the world as it is independent of my perception. Where normative modern subjects have learned at this time in cultural history to separate the roles they play as characters in various social and political dramas from the actor selves who represent those roles, and hence live the fiction of theatricality with a minimal degree of detachment from those roles, Quixote has taken too seriously the theatrical fiction, and has projected into his world a character who must be responsible for his inability to prove to others that every step of his life is orchestrated and observed by that evil enchanter.


Honoré Daumier, Don Quichotte et Sancho Pansa, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

Theatrical delusions like Truman Show Syndrome give us a glimpse into the basic presuppositions of a cognitive structure common to modernity, one shared by all normative subjects even as they are deflected, ironized, or repressed by a minimal distance pried open by the paternal metaphor. That cognitive structure, which I call theatricality, assumes a division of the world into various planes of existence, as exemplified by the mutually encapsulated worlds of a character and the actor who plays him. This cognitive structure, which developed in European mentalities throughout the sixteenth century, became dominant during the early modern period and expressed itself aesthetically in the play of appearances and perspective that achieved its extreme in baroque plastic arts and in philosophy in the form of modern epistemology. This philosophical endeavor—canonically traced to Descartes, who, as I’ve argued elsewhere, developed his ideas under the cultural influence of Cervantes—places knowledge of the real squarely in the hands of the human senses and then proceeds to problematize the ability of those senses to know anything other than themselves. The philosopher at the dawn of modernity, in other words, stands on the stage of the world and wonders how, exactly, given that he must use the senses his character is provided with to scope out the nature of the world, he will ever come to knowing how the world really is beyond the confines of the stage. This question, taken too seriously, leads to Truman Show Syndrome; with the right amount of ironic detachment, it has given us our dominant form of entertainment in the modern world: fiction.

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