The following is from an online article by Peter Goldman called "Consumer Society and its Discontents: The Truman Show and the Day of the Locust

The whole article may be found here:

The author argues that The Truman Show is not an effective critique of consumerism. This critique which he calls academic and neoliberal tends to demonize corportations and to overemphsize the control they exert over the individual. As a consequence of this demonization, the consumer is cast as passive victim. He or she is encourage to blame corporations (in this case, Cristof) and to fail to assume personal responsiblity. He also argues that the show rests on a false dualism suggesting that the world inside the bubble is less authentic than the world outside the bubble. He argues this is not the case--in fact since our social realities are always mediated (or pre-packaged) there is no such thing as authenticity.

I think we have discussed some of these points in class and indeed raised questions about them. We have wonder if the world in which Truman lives is any more or less real than the world we inhabit.

Taking a look at this article may help if you wish to analyze the Truman Show as a critique of consumer society.

1. The Truman Show

While Marx criticized capitalism as an impersonal machine that consumes labor and then discards workers, the more recent criticism is that consumers are manipulated by huge corporations into buying an endless stream of trivial products that must be soon discarded when the next hyped item for consumption arrives. In this view, the freedom and prosperity we enjoy, incredible by almost any historical standard, are illusory, for we remain enslaved to multi-national corporations.

This critique of consumer society finds its paradigmatic allegorical expression in the popular movie The Truman Show. The main character, Truman Burbank, played by Jim Cary, lives literally in a giant bubble, a climate-controlled dome where every moment of his life in secretly filmed and broadcast as a reality show to a world-wide audience. Life in the bubble appears to Truman as free but is actually governed by the show's producer Christof. Truman's day-to-day life is in reality a series of advertisements: his friends and family (all actors of course) are constantly touting the benefits of various consumer products to the show's audience while they simultaneously play their roles in Truman's life. Truman believes that his desires are freely chosen, but in fact they are scripted, predetermined by the producer, including his choice of wife, career, friends, and so on. We find out, through a series of flashbacks, that as a teenager he met a woman Lauren who offers him the possibility of true love, but because she has not been scripted as his future wife, she is whisked off the show despite anything they can do. A more conventionally beautiful blonde named Meryl is chosen as his wife, but she only pretends to love him.

The movie portrays Truman's discovery that a world outside his bubble exists, a world which the movie suggests is more authentic or "real," free from the manipulations of Christof, the show's producer, whose name suggests the biblical Antichrist. If Truman could only get outside the bubble, outside the mimetic manipulation of Christof, he could desire authentically, find his true love, and live a real, unmediated life. The movie ends with Truman leaving the dome, refusing the safe yet empty fantasy world offered by the producer.

The Truman Show is a modern Pilgrim's Progress. In John Bunyan's classic allegory, Christian, an everyman, discovers with the help of the Bible that he lives in the "City of Destruction" and is accordingly doomed. He must leave his friends and family and set out on the pilgrim pathway, where he encounters various obstacles, temptations, and setbacks. He perseveres, however, and finally arrives at the Heavenly City. The book ends with him crossing the "River of Death" and entering heaven. Likewise, Truman lives in a fool's paradise until he discovers that his life is a mere sham. He sets out to leave his friends and family and encounters various obstacles; but he perseveres, and the movie ends with him stepping outside the dome to a brave new world of unmediated desire.

The movie has been universally interpreted as an allegory of the sinister influence of the media upon our lives. According to a website devoted to the movie, "It is a story that reveals an essential truth about what is happening to society in the 20th century, . . . [i.e.] how the media and corporations have begun to surround us with a universe of illusions" (Sanes). In this reading, Truman Burbank is an everyman, a "true man," analogous to each one of us. As the website puts it,

Thus does the movie offer us a metaphor for our own situation. The fake landscape Truman lives in is our own media landscape in which news, politics, advertising and public affairs are increasingly made up of theatrical illusions. Like our media landscape, it is convincing in its realism, with lifelike simulations and story lines, from the high-tech facsimile of a sun that benevolently beams down on Truman to the mock sincerity of the actor he mistakenly believes is his best friend. (Sanes)

In this allegory, "the producer-director of this stage-set world, who blocks Truman's effort to escape, is the giant media companies, news organizations, and media politicians that have a stake in keeping us surrounded by falsehood, and are prepared to lure us with rewards as they block efforts at reforming the system" (Sanes).

If the movie is criticized at all, it is for being insufficiently radical in its critique of the mass media. René Girard's theory of mediated desire, however, suggests a rather different interpretation. Truman thinks his desires are his own, but he discovers that in fact they are all mediated by his mimetic rival, Christof, the show's producer, who is mythically demonized as virtually all powerful and evil, a tempter figure comparable to Milton's Satan. (When Truman tries to escape the dome by boat, Christof ruthlessly risks Truman's life in a terrible storm which almost drowns him.)


René Girard, in his seminal theory of mediated desire, argues that human desire (as distinct from mere appetite) is essentially imitative; that which we hold most private and personal, our desires, are not really our own: we imitate the desires of others. Put crudely, we want what others want, because they want it. Rather than a spontaneous expression of selfhood, desire is mediated by the model. The mediation of desire, however, remains generally unconscious; the stubbornly held belief that our desires are our own, and that the desired object or person is the key to our transcendent happiness, is what Girard call the mensonge romantique, the romantic lie or illusion. In Eric Gans's analysis of this relationship, the repression of the mediation of desire is the origin of the so-called Freudian unconscious, not some repressed "event or fact" (Signs of Paradox 124). Rather than expressing our deeply held needs and wants, desire actually reflects our competitive and conflictual relationship with others; for this reason, desire is never really satisfied, as our mimetic relationship with others is an on-going given of our condition as social animals. Desire leads to conflict with the other, because the self and model both desire exclusive possession of the same object. Girard characterizes the desiring subject as the "disciple" and the mediator as the "model." Describing the ambivalent relationship between disciple and model, he writes,

The impulse toward the [desired] object is ultimately an impulse toward the mediator; in internal mediation [i.e., the mediator belongs to same group or social sphere as the subject] this impulse is checked by the mediator himself since he desires, or perhaps possesses the object. Fascinated by his model, the disciple inevitable sees, in the mechanical obstacle which he puts in his way, proof of the ill will borne him. Far from declaring himself a faithful vassal, he thinks only of repudiating the bonds of mediation. But these bonds are stronger than ever, for the mediator's apparent hostility does not diminish his prestige but instead augments it. . . . The subject is torn between two opposite feelings toward his model--the most submissive reverence and the most intense malice. This is the passion we call hatred.

Only someone who prevents us from satisfying a desire which he himself has inspired in us is truly an object of hatred. The person who hates first hates himself for the secret admiration concealed by his hatred. In an effort to hide this desperate admiration from others, and from himself, he no longer wants to see in his mediator anything but an obstacle. The secondary role of the mediator thus becomes primary, concealing his original function of a model scrupulously imitated.

Now the mediator is a shrewd and diabolical enemy; he tries to rob the subject of his most prized possessions; he obstinately thwarts his most legitimate ambitions. (10-11)

Since the mediator competes with the self for the same object or person, the model becomes an "obstacle," a hated and feared rival who blocks the fulfillment of desire. Despite the hatred that emerges between self and rival, the self remains ambivalently attached to the rival, since it is he who gives value or "authenticity" to the self's desires. The rival is akin to the "other" in psychoanalytic terminology. An "internal" mediator is essentially comparable to the self, but the self's vanity requires that his desires remain authentic, his "own"; therefore the rival is often demonized as an all-powerful obstacle that blocks the paradise of fulfilled desire. This distorted version of the mediator is the portrayal of The Truman Show.

In The Truman Show, the original role of the mediator as model has been obscured, "concealing his original function of a model scrupulously imitated," as Girard puts it. The movie rather begins with the premise that Christof, the mediator, is "a shrewd and diabolical enemy." The movie therefore functions in exactly the opposite way from the realist novels of Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust, and Dostoevsky, whose works form the original framework for Girard's theory (see Deceit, Desire, and the Novel). These novels reveal the mystifications of mimetic desire; the reader is able to witness how and why the revered model is transformed into a "diabolical enemy." At the end of these novels, the protagonist typically undergoes a quasi-religious conversion which creates a new and revelatory understanding of his past for both reader and protagonist.

The Truman Show recognizes on some level the anthropological truth that human desire is mediated, but the mediator of desire is mythicized as all-powerful and evil, rather than a human being similar to ourselves. Rather than accurately representing media influence, the movie misrepresents the media as the all-powerful controller of our desires. The portrayal of Christof reflects the distortions of mimetic rivalry rather than the actual power of the media in our lives.

Life outside the bubble is also mystified as the realm of authentic desire. Most readers of this journal will recognize that life outside the bubble is just as mythic as life inside. The movie's fantasy is that we can somehow get outside the situation of mimetic desire. The movie therefore has to end before Truman actually faces the reality of life outside the bubble, or the movie would degenerate into either bathos or a simplistic fantasy world easily recognized as such. A charming fairy tale the movie may be, but not a serious critique of consumer society.

The disturbing part of the movie's ideology is not its childish fantasy of being the universal center of attention, but the projection of responsibility onto a demonic other. Instead of helping people to take responsibility for their use of the media, the movie encourages a regressive projection of blame that evades the true issue.

The problem of mimetic rivalry is real, constitutive in fact of the human species. What distinguishes the human species is that the main threat to our existence is other humans, not the environment (Gans, OT 2). In Gans's "originary hypothesis" language first emerged to mediate (and ameliorate) our relationship to other humans—not, as commonly thought, to mediate our relationship to the environment, that is, to describe the world. The threat of mimetic conflict is therefore ongoing as a function of the social nature of our existence. The potential for human violence must be continually deferred; this is the "work" of language (and by extension culture), its original, ethical function. All solutions to the problem of human violence are therefore temporary, since mimetic desire is the phoenix which is continually reborn from the ashes of satisfaction. Gans, therefore, rejects all utopian solutions, including those of the quasi-Marxist critics of the mass media.

Girard, in contrast, takes a religious perspective on the problem of human violence; in Girard's view, the only answer to our dilemma is to make God or his incarnation our model of desire, to choose absolute love over sacrificial desire. This can be a satisfying solution at the level of the individual, but it doesn't work at the level of society. Girard fails to recognize the constructive role of consumer products in ameliorating mimetic conflict, a point to which I will return.

The leftist critique of consumer society is based on a similar fantasy as The Truman Show. Christof, the show's producer, is a Hollywood version of what Theodor Adorno calls the "culture industry." He writes, "The more strongly the culture industry entrenches itself, the more it can do as it chooses with the needs of consumers: producing, controlling, disciplining them" (115). Consumers are completely passive in this model: "Capitalist production hems them in so tightly, in body and soul, that they unresistingly succumb to whatever is proffered to them" (Adorno 106). Just as in The Truman Show, Adorno seems to believe that if we could only get rid of these huge corporations, we could desire authentically and, hopefully, more tastefully. Certainly we would devote more money to the study of great literature, music, and art (as defined by Adorno and his colleagues). As Gans writes, "Esthetes object to the reign of money: wealth does not guarantee good taste, neither individual wealth nor the aggregate wealth of the masses" (Chronicles #25).


The neo-Marxist critique of consumerism depends upon a false distinction between authentic desire and the inauthentic desires created by a consumer culture. But what, we must ask, distinguishes between them? Most of the daily goods we take for granted in America, people living in third world countries manage to do quite well without. In fact, all of culture could be classified as superfluous. As Shakespeare pointed out long ago, culture is by definition that which exceeds "true need." "Our basest beggars / Are in the poorest thing superfluous. / Allow not nature more than nature needs, / Man's life is as cheap as beast's" (King Lear 2.4.266-269). The superfluous is the essential when it comes to culture. But culture is superfluous only in the sense that the ethical is superfluous. What King Lear recognizes is that the existence of the human community may be humanly necessary but is not inevitable, "natural." Culture, as the basis of civilization, is contingent upon our continual efforts to renew and reaffirm it. The human community is always in danger of extinction. This is the moral imperative that authorizes mass culture, however distasteful we may find its products.

What is at the root of the academic hostility to consumerism, the media, and the market in general? In part, as I've argued above, this hostility is based on the mystification of desire. Our vanity requires that our desires remain our own, even if we must demonize the rivals of corporate advertising. Contemporary psychoanalytic theory is in agreement with mimetic theory that the perceived integrity of our identity always requires an "other"; capitalism, consumerism, and the mass media are all versions of that "other" by which intellectuals often define and defend themselves.

Capitalism is an inevitable outgrowth of a free market. Gans points out that the market is not a thing, but the collective result of the individual decisions of all of its participants (Chronicles #8 and #34). "Reification" has become the bogeyman of recent literary theory, yet the reification of capitalism is still accepted without hesitation. There is no evil demiurge of capitalism, no "producer": the system expresses the choices of individuals. When we criticize consumer society, what we are really criticizing is the consumer choices of our fellow citizens. At bottom, this is an aesthetic issue. The academic hostility to the market is fundamentally aesthetic. My point here is not original: Gans argues insightfully that "culture" is hostile to the market because traditional culture requires "effective mimetic models, good shows. The market is not about shows, but about the organization of human efforts toward satisfying our desires and generating new ones, in the unceasing, and, we hope, unending effort to stay a step ahead of the resentments it generates" (Chronicles #25).

Intellectuals want people to consume more tastefully, in ways closer to themselves. But this criticism misses the whole point of consumption, which is to distinguish oneself. We cannot all be the best, but we can each be different; this is the meaning of the modern valorization of self-expression, the omnipresent aestheticization of our existence.

Virtually every personal decision is on some level an aesthetic decision, from the clothes we wear, to the food we buy, to our choice of career. Our very identity is the subject of aesthetic self-fashioning. Our ability to be different, if not the best, is the key to modern culture. As Girard has pointed out, humans are essentially mimetic, which means competitive and conflictual. What each of us requires fundamentally is an arena in which we can successfully compete and be recognized as such. The aesthetic is one such arena available to virtually every modern individual. As it was recognized long ago, De gustibus, non est disputandum. In matters of taste there is no dispute. The primary ethical function of consumer society is to aestheticize our daily existence, thereby deferring the resentments created by social/economic inequalities.

Consumerism, and the mass culture that accompanies it, is a necessary evil of a mass democratic society. All societies require some structuring principle to prevent unrestrained conflict and competition. Past societies, ancient, medieval, and Renaissance, were structured along more hierarchical lines. One's place in the hierarchy was maintained in part by sheer force, as exemplified by drastic punishments for minor thefts. Public, communal rituals and ceremonies were also effective in creating a powerful sense of divine awe for political and ecclesiastical authorities. But Protestant iconoclasm, in collaboration with Enlightenment rationality, has eroded our sense of "divine" authority. In modern democratic societies, power is relatively decentralized, and authority, always vulnerable to suspicion and resentment, is limited by market forces. As Adam Smith recognized, a free market incorporates widespread competition as a positive force, rather than limiting it by rigid hierarchical distinctions. The modern world defers the potential violence of unrestrained competition by allowing each person to create individual difference, which is to say, sacrality.

If we are unique, then nobody can compete with us. The post-modern drive for diversity is built on this principle. We need as much diversity as possible to defuse the competition that threatens to destroy us. We advocate accepting each person as he or she is. Each person is special, unique, and uniquely valuable. It becomes imperative to believe this in a world without the sacral guarantees of religion. Girard underestimates the contribution of consumerism in deferring violence. The constructive function of consumerism is in facilitating individuation, or differentiation, apart from open conflict, which when unrestrained results in rigid hierarchies ruled by the most powerful and violent. Instead of killing others, we recognize their difference, asking them to recognize us in return. Consumer products, which enable this differentiation on a mass scale, are what make a mass society possible. To argue against a consumer society is to argue against a mass society. And to argue against a mass society is to dispute the legitimacy of the modern world as such.

In pragmatic terms, we don't want to do away with our consumer society; we want to buy the things we want at the cheapest possible price. That's why so much of the leftist criticism of the consumer society is hypocritical, since the critics themselves enjoy the fruits of this society. Furthermore, they don't offer any realistic alternative. Corporations can and should be regulated, and of course they are already are. But these political corrections to the free market can be handled within our existing political framework. The advantage of our system is that it allows these kind of corrections to made peacefully, through political negotiation.

From an anthropological perspective, if we can truly understand the workings of mimetic desire, we can also rationally ameliorate its destructive potential. Of course, we can never completely step outside the mimetic circle, but realizing that we live within it can transform our social interactions. The postmodern era brings an increasingly widespread self-awareness of the mediated nature of desire, even apart from the influence of Girard's mimetic theory. In fact, consumerism is often celebrated in the postmodern world, despite the efforts of humanities professors.

Recent critics, even on the left, have recognized that consumption is an active process. Michel de Certeau argues,

In reality, a rationalized, expansionist, centralized, spectacular and clamorous production is confronted by an entirely different kind of production, called "consumption" and characterized by its ruses, its fragmentation (the result of circumstances), its poaching, its clandestine nature, its tireless and quiet activity, in short by its quasi-invisibility, since it shows itself not in its own products (where would it place them?) but in an art of using those imposed upon it. (31)