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We Are The World: Jordan Peele’s Us

By Jeff Wood.

Even now I am an impostor. Here—ratted out by this writing. Perhaps, precisely because of it. That I purport to know what I’m talking about. Unless, in fact, I really am an impostor. In that case, I know exactly what I’m talking about. In that case, I am not an impostor after all—by being one.

The prismatic character of our times is such that all works of art might have something to say about it, some sliver of reflection caught in the shattered mirror, even if unwittingly or unintentional. When the overarching theme of this of not-so-fun house-of-mirrors is the perception of perception, then everything is a clue—every chance encounter, every uttered phrase, every fragment is an artifact, a symbol of a symbol of a symbol in the infinite regress of what is really going on. What dark forces are determining this? In what corrupt reality are we in fact living? Corrupt like a file. The copy of the file. The copy of the copy of the copy. Corrupted perhaps by the degenerating consequences of the replication itself – otherwise we must assign blame, mustn’t we? And where does that get us these days? Right back into the not-so-fun house-of-mirrors, apparently. Where blame itself is subject to the maddening degeneration of the copy. In other words, we’re fucked. Or at least that’s the persistent shadow reality we’re now tethered to. The reality which may be a copy of this reality, or may simply be this one, just as it is. The one that we share, or wish we didn’t. As much as there is a we or an us, or not. Which may be real. Or not. Or maybe everything is fine. And that’s a copy too. A copy of a sinister okay-ness.

The facsimile might be semantic. The vertigo might be imagined. But the nausea is not. Or more accurately: it doesn’t matter if nausea is imagined or not. Nausea is nausea. You can’t copy nausea. You either have it or you don’t. I suppose you could fake it until it’s induced. But then it’s still nausea. The emergency of nausea —or the nauseating emergency—is that we are now required to convince ourselves of our own experience in order to render it real. In order to render it ours. In order to authenticate it, much less repair it. But the first question we must ask is: required by whom? Whom do I need convince of my experience? The eyes in power, of course, the eyes beholding the eye of the beholder. The ones seeing (or not seeing) me. Or rather, the apparatus which determines how I see my seeing. Yes—how I see my seeing myself. Does this apparatus have provenance and more importantly, will that provenance be honored? To which we might further inquire: must experience be authenticated in order to be diagnosed and repaired? Should healing—survival even—require the determination of identification? Only to have that determined identity be reabsorbed, redistributed, circumvented, outsourced, off-shored, and integrated as systemic disqualification with maximized processing fees in a circuit of radical, criminal disenfranchisement?

Or, rather, might the most direct route be via the diagnosis of an epidemic fraudulence? A plague of fraudulence. Fraudulence, that is, on the order of the apocalyptic. That apocalyptic narrative in the culture-at-large. That apocalyptic narrative in the science-at-large. Or the denial of it. No matter, that story is the apocalyptic narrative of ourselves. Yet… is it real? Or are we dealing, again, with some simultaneous copy of sinister okay-ness. Okay, which is not okay, but is okay.

And is it real? And what’s the fucking difference?

Of all the recent works which answer to this maze—and they are legion (according to the above argument, all works of art answer to the maze)—the most concise among them might be Us from director Jordan Peele. In Us, the entire United States is mirrored by a subterranean experimental laboratory in which each of us is “tethered” to an underground, laboratory-raised, zombie shadow-self. If one of these shadow-selves were to take our place, we eventually learn, “we” would not know the difference between what we are or aren’t, or why. This is, of course,  what transpires, in a brilliant twist of the zombie apocalypse genre, culminating in a zombie reenactment of the corporate flash-mob charity “Hands Across America.”

Set in a re-imagined 1986—the year I was sixteen, and may or may not have participated in the actual Hands Across America—Us captures the nation at the symbolical peak of commercial materialism, where all zombie films spiritually reside. As such, the film offers itself as a critical and temporal sequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing, a vision of what might have actually happened after the shape-shifting alien escapes from Antarctica, makes its way onto the civilized continent and replaces us all with alien, shadow, zombie versions of ourselves—exact replicas, us but not quite us. Indeed, as Peele is proposing (also in a nod to Invasion of the Body Snatchers), this is actually what has happened beneath the historical and resulting cultural wheel of the United States of America. We are not who we think we are. We are all, somehow, not who we are. We are all not ourselves. And now we know it.

In his first film, the hostage-horror Get Out, Peele telegraphed a radically contemporary indictment fueled by a brilliant and revelatory point of view. The revelation and, therefore, the indictment were, in this sense—in the universal vocabulary of genre—narrative co-conspirators in the writer-director’s brilliant use of genre and setting. A revelation of the terrifying persistence of the fundamental dissociation reflected by African American experience on the one hand, and at the other end of the circuit, an indictment of the systemic colonial perspective that is upheld by white fetishizing of that experience. (If we need it decoded, or impostor-splained). Additionally, in Get Out, Peele engineers for us as viewers, a simultaneous two-way projection. In one direction are the projections we make onto the classic horror film protagonist and the mine-field of “horrors” that arise in the genre’s trope of audience complicity. And in the other direction, by disrupting the fourth wall even more radically (the fourth wall which is everywhere now, or fifth), and turning those projections back on the audience as an interrogatory mirror, by subverting and occupying the horror film protagonist point of view which has been  archetypically (commercially) reserved for, and imposed upon, young white women. It’s a remarkable feat with an astonishing narrative effect on both sides of the screen: rewriting the institutionalized baseline for archetypal / commercial projection while simultaneously excavating that classic house-of-horrors down to its stinking, sinister foundations. And then spectacularly burning that house to the ground.

With his second film Us, by implicating everyone in a chain of systemic horror, he (almost) let’s us all off the hook. Such is the loophole of our times. Or the keyhole of perception. Disassociation unto terror, which in Get Out was narratively isolated to, and illuminated by, African American experience, is now, in Us, endemic to everyone, everyone  participating in the counterfeiting laboratory of American culture, which is to say, all of us. The experience of it— that is to say, of Us—is a deeply unsettling realization of genre as reality. As a highly anticipated and, despite some opinions, deservingly marketed sophomore outing, it was predictable that Us would not be quite as perfect or as perfectly entertaining as Get Out. But whereas the flawless expertise of Get Out lay in its innovation of a radically personal point of view, the sleight of hand in Us, with all the lumbering subtlety of the zombie apocalypse genre, is the encrypted subterfuge of being radically personal to the viewer, whoever you are, and frankly, whether you know it or not. It is perfect in what it says directly, in what is too true to be believable, in its assessment of culture’s shadow self—the horror in the basement that haunts us collectively, all the more potently the more it is denied, ignored, and indeed buried.

Us capitalizes, within the psychological horror genre, on what I’ve described elsewhere (here and here) as the migration of Lynchian. Whereas “Lynchian” previously referred to a horror in the world—a profound anxiety arising in the tension between the banal and the surreal: that strange corner over there, that otherwise perfectly normal cup of coffee, that subtext of sound, image, texture, and word rising to the surface as narrative—with 2017’s The Return, Lynch brought his own defining vocabulary of what is Lynchian into the digital age, into the age of the everything-everywhere-all-the-time, into the geography of nowhere to hide, and above all, mercilessly, into the eye of the perceiver. What is Lynchian now is no longer to be found on the screen, but rather in the unsettled, unreliable experience of the watching itself. It’s not that we don’t know what we’re looking at anymore; we’ve had a lifetime’s training for that. We don’t know how we are seeing anymore. We’re not quite sure how we should be seeing. Consequently, and most unsettling (yes, uncanny) of all, we may not be quite certain in our determination of who or what is doing the seeing. Particularly when the observer and the observed are possibly the very same thing. Corrupted copies of each other. So what is being seen now, as impossible as it may be, is possibly the seeing itself or a corrupted copy of the seer seeing. Which is to ask: What is this thing that I thought I knew, when this thing was me? What is this thing that I thought knew how to see? What am I? What is us? Am I…. us?

Peele grounds that narrative migration squarely in the culpability of the viewer. No matter who you are, whether you’re sure of what you’ve seen, whether you liked it or not, that narrative trespasses against the germane entitlement of whether or not one thinks they are immune. With the weapon of a mutated perception as its vector, the contagion of Us radically evades the immunity. It lands in the body of the viewer, with all the water weight of that zombie shadow self, and signals to that body a sea change in our perception of the entire culture of ourselves. That sea-change abounds now, as far as we can tell, in every wave of every fractured mirror. As sea-changing as the documentary shadow story of Leaving Neverland might capably overturn our assessment of the entire culture that we thought we knew, the entire culture-as-marketed-iconography, or more accurately, the one that we knew all along but were choosing not to know.

To take it onboard, hook, line and sinker, and see the culture that renders us what we are / are not—as Jordan Peele heroically does with Us—is to deeply consider that possibility, the undeniable simultaneity, that I am not what I thought I was. Here we encounter the convergence of fiction and nonfiction as culture— the sinister, shadow impostor that may very well be us standing in for ourselves. Here we encounter a simultaneous and shared trauma. It is that shadow self sweeping across our view like an infection, an inoculation, or an antidote; or all three at once. The shock of that shot is not the sense that we don’t necessarily know who we are anymore, but the suspicion that we are, in fact, not who we are at all.

And so we hear it, over and over again, in response to every outbreak of news: This is not who we are! At the extreme of it, which is now apparently the center of this news, we confront the incomprehensible, obliterating, and alien multiplicity of ourselves. Perhaps what once lay sleeping, integrated, is now represented and reflected in the bifurcating mirrors of code which give it dimension; perhaps what once was native (or foreign) now other-worldly, is myself. And myself. And myself. And myself. And myself. The emergence, and the emergency, is that stranger standing before us, as us, in the mirror that is everywhere we turn now. The stranger’s severed hand is my own. It is the hand that holds the fork that has stabbed my naked lunch and brings it to my face, if only I have the stomach for it.

Jeff Wood is an actor and writer from Ohio currently living in Berlin. He is a founding member of the experimental film/art group Rufus Corporation. His cinematic novel The Glacier was published in 2015 by Two Dollar Radio. His essays ‘Monuments of Fire’ and ‘Hurricane Bob,’ among others, have been published by 3:AM Magazine. He is currently at work on The Spider’s Remorse: Encounters with the Algorithmic Taxidermist, an unreliable account of hysterical realism. 

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, April 8th, 2019.