I watched a documentary on Netflix called Jim & Andy (2017) that provides a glimpse behind the scenes of the making of Man on the Moon (1999) where Jim Carrey portrays Andy Kaufman. It’s a familiar story of art imitating life (or is it life imitating art?) as Carrey goes method and essentially channels Kaufman and Kaufman’s alter ego Tony Clifton. A whole gaggle of actors played earlier incarnations of themselves in Man on the Moon and appeared as themselves (without artifice) in Jim & Andy, adding another weird dimension to the goings on. Actors losing themselves in roles and undermining their sense of self is hardly novel. Regular people lose themselves in their jobs, hobbies, media hype, glare of celebrity, etc. all the time. From an only slightly broader perspective, we’re all merely actors playing roles, shifting subtly or dramatically based on context. Shakespeare observed it centuries ago. However, the documentary points to a deeper sense of unreality precisely because Kaufman’s principal shtick was to push discomfiting jokes/performances beyond the breaking point, never dropping the act to let his audience in on the joke or provide closure. It’s a manifestation of what I call the Disorientation Protocol.

The Disorientation Protocol calls into question the truth of experience as we commonly experience it and establishes a nested layer of meta-reality (reality prime) or even multiple realities wholly dependent on the individual’s perspective. Throughout modern history (perhaps 1600 CE forward), many individuals have hit upon this idea, and from time to time, it emerges as dogma within some formal thought system (e.g., deconstructionist literary theory and today’s identity politics). Truly embracing meta-reality, however, so badly damages ego boundaries that many end up embracing nondualism, which asserts no self/other, and with it, a notable lack of free will or human agency. Although such a conclusion is more typically the province of hyperintellectual thought leaders and spiritual gurus, it’s filtering down to the masses thanks to a confluence of influences, including Andy Kaufman’s hijinks. By popularizing the joke that’s never off, Kaufman essentially forces everyone to question themselves and their perceptions, not unlike a magic trick, confidence scheme, psyop, or fraud so convincing people actually believe what they experienced.

Let me offer a different way of thinking of this. The mind uses narrative to organize experience into a coherent story, the so-called stream of consciousness. Typical narratives have a three-part form: beginning, middle, and end, or introduction, conflict, and resolution, or exposition, development, and restatement. We also also use terms such as prologue, epilogue, intermission, interpolation, climax, denouement, coda, credits, and after credits to denote recognizable formal elements. Most narrative forms employ silent framing before and after to acknowledge the start and stop of narrative and to accept applause. Kaufman (and others), by obliterating the frame, forced audiences to expand the nested inner drama, typically experienced vicariously as fiction, into the outer drama of experience that forms real life. Confusion and disorientation ensued.

That confusion is present in numerous contemporary examples of the bad and/or uncomfortable joke that’s never off. For instance, the rebuffed sexual come-on that’s immediately played off (“oh, just joking”) is familiar to most people as bad taste and psychological defense. More significantly, Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy two years ago was initially understood as joke, stunt, and self-promotion, partly out of the candidate’s narcissism but also as worthwhile exposure of the abject failures of electoral politics to offer competent and admirable candidates. As the race wore on, expectation was that Trump would either drop his pretense or be defeated in the primary (or both) and the joke would be over. Well, neither happened, and confusion arose among voters who believed themselves in on the joke (as with the poll to name RRS Boaty McBoatface) how far the joke would be pushed. Whether ardent supporters or jokesters, voters pushed it all the way to the Oval Office, as it turned out. An expected pivot into presidential demeanor also never happened.

Writ large, the Disorientation Protocol uses the post-ironic perspective discussed here to confound our appreciation of reality, distorting it from its logical extension to reality prime, an alternate timeline from which we hope or expect to wake at any moment as though it were merely a bad dream. This is also the paradox behind self-awareness, or looking at oneself in the mirror, or worse, a hall of mirrors forming an infinite regress. Which reflection is me? Well, they’re all me because I’m essentially indivisible despite the appearance of many. It’s a further paradox that consciousness both separates and unites us in a social milieu. Now that the framing mechanism has been stripped away, it’s no wonder many lost down the rabbit hole can’t believe themselves to be real anymore.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s