This past July, Merriam-Webster announced on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, that “‘doppelgänger’ is currently one of our top lookups.”
The doppelgänger — defined by Merriam-Webster as a “person who resembles someone else, or a ghostly counterpart of a living person” — is suddenly unavoidable. Social media platforms are crowded with videos of “that moment when” a pair of uncanny look-alikes come face-to-face at a friend’s wedding, or in a Las Vegas swimming pool or on a plane. A Taylor Swift doppelgänger has collected 1.6 million followers on TikTok, while the real Ms. Swift performs multiple alter-ego versions of herself in the “Anti-Hero” video. Rachel Weisz doubles herself in the remake of Dead Ringers, and Netflix’s latest season of Black Mirror begins with an episode wherein computer-generated versions of celebrities impersonate ordinary people.
There has even been a burst of doppelgänger-on-doppelgänger violence. Last year, a woman in Germany was accused of murdering her glamorous beauty-blogger look-alike with the aim of using the body to fake her own death. And in February, a Russian-born New Yorker was convicted of attempted murder: She had fed poisoned cheesecake to her doppelgänger in hopes of stealing her identity.
Though doppelgängers reliably elicit feelings of vertigo, I find the sudden prevalence of doubles oddly comforting. For years I struggled privately with a problem I considered rather niche: being perennially confused and conflated with another writer and outspoken political analyst named Naomi, Naomi Wolf, even though I bear only a passing resemblance to her. (And I would see the same thing happening to her.) Once best known for best-selling feminist books like “The Beauty Myth” and for a controversial role advising Al Gore’s presidential run, Ms. Wolf has more recently distinguished herself as an industrial-scale disseminator of vaccine-related medical misinformation, as well as a fixture on pro-Trump shows like the one hosted daily by Steve Bannon.
I sometimes wondered what I had done to deserve my doppelgänger woes. With popular culture feeling increasingly like a house of mirrors with duplicated and simulated and similar selves endlessly refracted, many more of us may soon be dealing with versions of doppelgänger confusion. What role is this proliferation of doubles, twins and clones playing? Doppelgängers, which combine the German words for doppel (double) with gänger (goer), are often regarded as warnings, or omens.
In an attempt to better understand the warnings carried by my doppelgänger experience, I spent many evenings immersing myself in the rich repertory of doppelgänger films. One that proved particularly helpful was Jordan Peele’s “Us.” This 2019 horror film imagines a society much like our own, only sitting on top of a shadowy underworld, inhabited by warped doubles of everyone living aboveground. Every move above is mirrored below in darkness and misery. Until the underground doppelgängers get tired of the arrangement and wreak havoc.
Who are these underground people? one terrified character asks.
“We’re Americans,” comes the gut punch of an answer.
The film has been interpreted as an allegory for capitalism’s entanglements with racial and other forms of oppression, with the comforts of the few requiring the exploitation of a shadow world. That understanding landed particularly hard during the pandemic, when I watched the film. Those of us who were part of the lockdown class were able to shelter in place because we were being served by “essential workers,” many of whom did not have the ability to call in sick. Doubles often play this role, offering viewers and readers uncomfortable ways into their own story. By showing us a character facing her doppelgänger, we are exposed to parts of ourselves we can least bear to see, but at a slight angle, and through a warped mirror.
Perhaps that’s why representations of doubles seem to surge during moments of extreme violence and change. The first major piece of theoretical work on the subject was an essay, titled “Der Doppelgänger,” by the Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank, then a protégé of Sigmund Freud. Postulating that doppelgängers were tools to express sublimated desires and terrors, it was written in 1914, just as the First World War began. In a reissue of the essay in 1971, Rank’s translator, Harry Tucker Jr., wondered, “Is there some relationship between extensive disruptions of society, with their concomitant unsettling effects upon the individual, and the interest of the literate public in descriptions of doubles imaginatively portrayed?”
Certainly, the rise of Nazism and the atrocities of the Holocaust inspired another such wave, as artists deployed doubles to grapple with the transformation of previously liberal and open societies. Children into soldiers. Colleagues into killers. Neighbors into mobs. As if a switch had been flipped. It’s the intimacy and familiarity of these transformations that are so ominous — and what is more intimate and familiar than a person’s double?
We are, once again, at a historical juncture where our physical and political worlds are changing too quickly and too consequentially for our minds to easily comprehend. This is why I decided to start regarding my own doppelgänger as a narrow aperture through which to look at forces I consider dangerous, and that can be hard to confront directly.
Rather than worrying about people thinking that she and I were one and the same, I got interested in the ways she seems to have become a doppelgänger of her former self. Because I have been getting confused with Ms. Wolf for close to a decade and half, I knew that she had been dabbling in conspiracy culture for years. (I would periodically get harangued online for positions she had taken.)
Before the pandemic, her underlying values seemed somewhat stable: feminism, sexual freedom, democracy, basic liberalism. Then, rather suddenly, they appeared less so. In a matter of months, I watched her go from questioning masks in schools to questioning election results alongside Mr. Bannon. Next she was engaging in Jan. 6 revisionism, condoning the Supreme Court’s assault on abortion rights, posting about her firearms and also warning that “war is being waged upon us.”
This is a phenomenon far larger than Ms. Wolf, of course. A great many of us have witnessed it in people we know, once respected and even still love. We tell one another that they have disappeared “down the rabbit hole,” lost to conspiratorial fantasies, embracing apocalyptic language, seemingly unreachable by affection or reason.
These changes are redrawing political maps, shifting parts of the traditional liberal and New Age left over to the hard right. Trucker convoys in Canada in January 2022. A conspiracy-fueled coup attempt in Germany at the end of that year. The war my doppelgänger keeps warning about in the United States.
Which brings me to the form of doppelgänger that preoccupies me most: the fascist clown state that is the ever-present twin of liberal Western democracies, perpetually threatening to engulf us in its fires of selective belonging and ferocious despising. The figure of the doppelgänger has been used for centuries to warn us of shadow versions of our collective selves, of these monstrous possible futures.
Have our doppelgängers overtaken us? Not yet, not all of us anyway. But the pandemic, layered on top of so many other long-repressed emergencies, has taken humanity somewhere we have not been before, a place close but different, a kind of doppelgänger world. This is what accounts for the strangeness so many of us have been trying to name — everything so familiar, and yet more than a little off. Uncanny people, upside-down politics, even, as artificial intelligence accelerates, a growing difficulty discerning who and what is real.
That feeling of disorientation — of not understanding whom we can trust and what to believe — that we tell one another about? Of friends and loved ones seeming like strangers? It’s because our world has changed, but, as if we’re having a collective case of jet lag, most of us are still attuned to the rhythms and habits of the place and selves we left behind. It’s past time to find our bearings.
Doppelgängers, by showing us the supremacist values and violent behaviors that pose the greatest threats to our societies, can spur us to more stable ground.
Naomi Klein, a professor at the University of British Columbia, is the author, most recently, of “Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World.”
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