The show must go on

Never has a movie better fitted a sociological theory than The Truman Show (1999) to the work of Erving Goffman. Best known for Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Frame Analysis, Asylums, Stigma, and Interaction Ritual, Goffman theorizes the ways people in society unconsciously play out roles. People are actors, and human experience, in short, is performance in society. We have no choice. Society exists to protect people, and one of the ways is to make sure people know how to respond correctly to other people at the right time. Goffman focuses on human interaction and analyzes every word, gesture, tic, and snort. The totality of our interactions comprises the enormity, if not enormous enigma, called society.

His books first appeared at the end of the 1950s and fit well with the pending student and radical critique of the establishment world. The idea that people play roles confirmed a view of the mendacity of adults, institutions, and authority and that society, being artificial and phony, had to be changed into something more honest. Impatience with the world-as-it-was, more than individual issues, seemed to be the principal ingredient for revolution. Goffman’s analyses made people self-conscious about their role-playing in everyday life and provided the foundation for questions about the nature of love and the authenticity of our dating and marriage rituals. The drive to be more authentic, to express one’s real feelings, to remove one’s mask, found validity in his critical analyses.

Goffman (right) deconstructed the social world. In Interaction Ritual, he cautions against self-consciousness about one’s role-playing. It will make the other person aware that one is playing a role and changes that person’s behavior, ultimately paralyzing any chance of social spontaneity. Hence the striving for one’s authenticity in society automatically defeats itself. The search for authenticity governing Goffman’s work and methodology has its philosophical ancestor in Plato’s allegory of the cave. People tied to stakes are unable to turn their heads away from the wall on which shadows appear. Having no alternative, the people interpret the shadows as reality. What keeps the heads from turning to see the puppeteer manipulating the shadows on the wall finds its equivalent in the very social forces Goffman cites as determining how we interact with one another everyday.

The nature of social forces can be interpreted as being benign or malignant for our understanding of reality and the development of our individual character. Much depends on one’s own requirements for the real. Many will be happy with the shadows on the wall; others are determined to find forms or essences of reality called the truth. To know is to act more authentically, to be more real. Whether behaving in a “more real” way can shake off or undo the social forms keeping us from experiencing the real remains uncertain.

Before dealing specifically with The Truman Show‘s relationship to Goffman’s sociology, I want to mention two other films, made about the same time as The Truman Show, each sharing with it an ideological distrust of reality and characters who struggle to break from their inauthentic worlds and identities. The degree to which the respective unrealities lived by the characters in The Matrix (1998) and Dark City (1998) is remarkably similar. Very few people in the respective worlds of these movies neither know nor care to know the true nature of their lives. In The Matrix, machines have manufactured reality for humans, who exist merely to keep the machines running. The film suggests that humans are content with this situation. A “virtual” steak and potatoes dinner appears more desirable than the liquid snot eaten by the crew of the Nebuchudnezzar. The Matrix‘s near Luddite view of technology essentially preaches that before the human race succumbed to the machines, we had laid the groundwork for virtual slavery by depending so mightily on technology.

Dark City‘s (right) world is fabricated by alien beings. Whereas The Matrix exists for machines in the ultimate form of utilitarianism, and The Truman Show creates a utopia for one individual, Dark City‘s aliens, known as The Strangers, are involved in an experiment to unlock the secrets of humanity. Every day represents a new set of circumstances for the inhabitants of the city. Like that of Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus, only John Murdoch’s tremendous act of will allows him to break through the facade of his world and unleash forces to counteract the aliens’ manipulative plans. Like Neo, he is deemed someone special, the “One.” His discovery of the city’s “secret” reveals not only the absolute untruth of human existence but that he and the citizens of the city do not inhabit earth anymore.

Indeed, Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) literally comes up against a wall in his ultimate quest for truth. His running into the wall anticipates Truman Burbank’s exit from The Truman Show if not Neo’s from the matrix. In a sense, all three heroes will take the red pill and opt for reality; nobody promises them an easy or pleasant or sweet hereafter. At best, the audiences will be pleased by some small triumphs over severely hostile antagonists: namely, the forces keeping these men and their cohorts from their authentic lives! Forces analogous to the intangible social constructs working in Goffman’s interaction rituals allow humans to get along comfortably in the world.

The three films together reflect a distrust of reality, the very legacy of Goffman’s sociology. When we can unravel or pull apart everyone’s motives and actions, in essence question their authenticity, the next step for us entails radical skepticism of everything around us. Nothing authentic exists save the pure entity we think is our Self. In effect, we can conclude that this pure untainted Self exists and would exist more luminously and happily had not the social dialogue eroded and corrupted it. The Truman Show, beyond the other two movies, represents our wounded, tattered ego in a struggle to free itself from a corrupt world. Truman Burbank wants to discover real experiences, experiences of which he has been deprived since birth, and from them gain his true Self.

His decision appears heroic, mythic, in tune with the desires of both the viewers of the movie and the viewers of the show within the movie. That we are rooting for him to leave and reject Christof, the avatar of social manipulation, should be a more disturbing factor than it seems to have been. The Truman Show appears ambivalent toward the show’s audience. On one level, the viewers have kept Truman trapped in Seaville – otherwise bad ratings would have meant the end of the show: freedom by cancellation. Success has killed many actors’ careers because the fans cannot perceive the actor in any other role. The audience wants – in a way as cruel and unfeeling as a society is – the actor to be the character forever. In Goffman’s terms, as actor/players in society we demand others play roles and follow the rules of those roles or pay a social penalty.

The relationship between Truman and his audience had become falsely intimate (hence, pseudo-complicated) because of the longevity of the program: thirty years. “The Truman Show” registers greater economic activity than many small nations. We tend to lose sight of the audience and its insidious power, especially when the drama focuses on Christof and Truman, suggesting God and Adam or, in a secular reading, the desire for a utopia without personal freedom. The latter issue becomes a major motif in The Matrix, highlighted when one of the Neb’s crew, Cypher, opts for the virtual sirloin steak and red wine. However, it would limit our understanding to have The Truman Show become merely a struggle between a creator and his creation. Indeed, the drama created by Truman’s showdown with Christof easily allows us, the movie audience, to respond identically to the movie as did the movie’s television audience. We cannot help but become involved in the drama and performances and become dull to the film’s critique of the television ethos or what I prefer to call the performance world.

The Truman Show tests the limits of a performance world. Unwittingly, by creating a private utopia for his surrogate son, Christof embarks on a more startling project. He literally creates a world of entertainment, Seaville, in which all of the society is acting except Truman who, in Goffman’s terms, becomes the ur-social man. Christof’s world crystallizes into a hyper-reality, the essence of the world that Goffman describes in his sociology. Put together the hero’s name and we get the “True man” of the “Burbank” world, Burbank representing the locus in southern California where many television shows are produced. Truman becomes the essence of a world of acting.1

Thus we have transcended the unsettling aspects of Dark City and The Matrix, where individuals have become fearful of living in an unauthentic, fake world, and have The Truman Show turn this problematic social situation inside out. Reality bristles more excitingly on television.2 The television audience lives for the next development of Truman’s life, like getting his wife pregnant. The audience members have given up their lives increasingly for the world of performance, only now they have a man to watch who is the most true, most authentic because unlike anyone else, he does not know that he lives in a performance world. Ipso facto, the world watching “The Truman Show” tacitly admits that the only world worthwhile in society is a performance one.3

Not everybody agrees with Christof’s vision. People are upset over being duped. They want Truman to discover the true nature of reality. By analogue, this group takes on the role as Interactionist social critics.

To be true, to live in an authentic world, one must know the extent to which performance dominates our daily lives. Interestingly, the film shows several types of people trying to make Truman aware of the “truth.” For the most part, they want to get on television and simply parachute in or pop out of a box during Truman’s birthday.4 There also exists a group that wants to liberate Truman from Seaville, one of whose members is a former actress on the show. She reacts to the show’s basic inhumanity and, by extension, the implied inhumanity at the core of the world of television.

Regardless of motives and ends, all contribute in some form to Truman’s doubting the realness of his world; this and several technical accidents, many during the latter stages of Truman’s stay in Seaville when he pushes the limits of his world. Critical mass is reached when he pressures his wife (Laura Linney) at home, and she speaks for help to a hidden camera. He turns around and asks to whom is she talking. It would be as if you caught your lover at a certain point during courtship asking aloud what he or she does next. Unlike “The Truman Show” actors, we do not have the script read into our ears, as when Marlon (Noah Emmerich) tries to persuade Truman that this world is real, adding that if it was fake then their lifelong friendship would be fake.

For the moment Truman is convinced; it is so well acted that the movie audience might believe it emotionally, despite being aware of the total artifice of Truman’s world.

Curiously, in the performance universe, there are times when the audience roots against its own interests. The world turns on and consumes itself, albeit in orgiastic good feeling and satisfaction. The show’s audience not only becomes excited when Truman comes close to discovering the truth and leaving Seaville, they WANT HIM TO LEAVE. This will mean no more “Truman Show.” His success will lead to cancellation, pulling the plug. Their self-interest has been trumped by a larger event: the quest for truth becoming dramatic. At times, society allows the mask to be pulled, all motives exposed, a sort of joyful wisdom to explode like the Big Bang and reorder the universe.

A similar situation occurs in Dark City. The reality of all lives in the city are such that each new day begins with people in new situations and tasks. The aliens experiment to discover the essence of humanness, believing it will save them. In other words, these outsiders see our humanity as a function of the Roles we play each day in society. It is only a matter of Goffman-like decoding of the rules to find the true-ness of man. The aliens, by extension, play Christof-like manipulators, only more sinister, but at least they are conscious of the fact that they are experimenting, and they are unforgiving to anyone who remotely wants to know the truth. Dark City suggests one result of fruitless truth searching: one becomes like Detective Eddie Walenski (Colin Friels), who stays in his room drawing spirals. His spirals suggest not that he has discovered the alien experiment but that within the framework of his world no truth can be found or that the search sends one down a spiral to nothingness. All three films offer a limited escape for their heroes.

Dark City offers a semi-mystical redemption for its human captives, although it remains uncertain what they can do at film’s end. The Matrix, meanwhile, retreats to a religious redemption, offering bits of Buddhist and Christian action and symbolism to help the Virtual human prisoners liberate themselves. To attain freedom, however, means more suffering if not certain death. The way of Neo, though, allows one to block out the idea of death and happiness in its neo-Buddhist rejection of desire. Neo embodies the human being attaining liberation from wanting to be free, strong, and powerful. However, The Matrix cannot resist having its Christianity and Buddhism too by making Neo the savior. Neo will live to die for the world.

Truman’s Christian symbolism is seemingly New Age. He is a savior but a savior for the Self, which distances The Truman Show from the other two movies. The world watching Truman’s liberation, his mock “so long and good-day,” are not liberated because they are separated from Truman’s salvation. As lifelong watchers, their interest is in the drama, and the final drama of absolute truth finding, with the emphasis on drama.

As the very last shot in the movie indicates, when the two parking attendants look dumbly at the next fuzzy television screen, what do the people do next? Look for truth themselves? Pick away at the inauthentic aspects of their own social world?

No, the attendants look for another show. Because the movie’s world, and by association our own, lionizes performance as end unto itself. We endlessly search for the next show to lead us to a dramatic search for reality.5 It is as if the role of the aliens in Dark City have been co-opted by television executives (those who have even greater power than Christof). We, as audience, are those who are being experimented on day-to-day, week-to-week, whence we become lost in the spiral of performances and role-changing. Only occasionally are we knocked from our belief in the solidity and glamour of this world, but then somehow the rent is repaired and things proceed as normal: the show must go on.

  1. To pursue the philosophical implications of this, see Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, translated by William Lovitt, (New York: Harper Paperbacks, 1977), 3-35, and Dan Scoggin’s essay in Negations, Spring 2002, “Heidegger, Technology and Television” in which he writes “the current phenomenon of television, with its privileged status as a cultural event, serves as an excellent example by which to explore Heidegger’s complex notion concerning how technology becomes intertwined with our Being.” [↩]
  2. To paraphrase Scoggins: “the medium threatens presence and nearness because it concerns itself with the challenge of revealing as ‘real’ what is continually further away.” [↩]
  3. Just as they get near to Truman, during his greatest triumph, when the audience becomes most ecstatic and bonds with their television hero, Truman walks through the door and disappears. [↩]
  4. Their rationale: to get into the show will get them nearer to Truman, the real thing, or perhaps to gain a sense of being more real by being able to say: “I was in the show.” The medieval mind would try to get close to God by obtaining a relic of a saint or from Christ’s crucifixion. Their sense of the real meant having God being revealed to them. [↩]
  5. The Truman Show anticipated the final frontier of television: The Reality Show. In a perverse way, the evolution of reality shows should lead “back” to “The Truman Show.” [↩]