HomeStandard PeopleThe doppelgänger and the deepfake

The doppelgänger and the deepfake

The remainder of a nocturnal binge — an unread half of the 2016 Scofield issue titled Dambudzo Marechera: The Doppelgänger —stretches biblically beyond my imminent deadline. As the suburb awakens, I have to shield my creative space from my neighbours’ loud but anaemic music with a playlist closer to my heart.

The storyboard with Stan Mushava

Times have been hard. My desire to float in time with Dendera and Chimurenga rarities should be understandable enough. Marxist Brothers’ Mwana Wenyu and Blacks Unlimited’s Ndiani Achatipa Runyararo get the most repeats. The distraction is worse than the first.

No longer in possession of my soul, as the music splinters it into a guerilla, a peasant, a griot, a statesman, a poet, a madman, a lover, and a preacher, I — otherwise just a halfway-to-decent columnist, foetally curled in front of a laptop an hour before deadline — give up on understanding my week’s reading cover to cover.

At any rate, back-channelling images and quotes between crack software into revolutionary WhatsApp statuses will probably not steal much of my time. The effect of it all: instead of approaching this week’s column about doppelgangers with authority, I do so with one question.

Are doppelgängers still out there, anyway? A misty entrance into a column; I know, but with queues and arrests everywhere, there may be enough waiting time to figure it out.

On first reading Marechera’s famous proclamation, “I am the doppelgänger whom, until I appeared, African literature had not yet met” I had a vague sense of “the doppelganger” as a haunting antipersona who shows a side of you that your ideologically sheltered self would rather not look eye to eye.

The Scofield issue, also featuring Zimbabwean contributions by Petina Gappah, Tinashe Mushakavanhu, Tendai Huchu and Nhamo Mhiripiri, micromanages the idea of the doppelgänger more closely. The special emphasis on Marechera’s fiction, written and lived, is fitting.

A contributor, Creon Upton, locks into the aspect of Marechera’s literature as “the doppelgänger or double” which “operates in various ways to undermine the concept of the unified individual, and to provoke an insight into the wider implications or possibilities which lie within or through this decentered subject.”

According journal editor, Tyler Malone (co-writing with his doppelgänger, Taylor Malone), we embody various selves, inherently at odds with one another as none can maintain dominance over the other. What we are to the outside world is merely what we have deliberately weighed and curated as advantageous and appropriate from the various voices within us.

Marechera is the doppelgänger of African literature as much as he is a doppelgänger to himself. His lover and apostle, Flora Veit-Wild, explains the former role. Marechera gatecrashes the independence party when “African writers are too much caught up in questions of ‘the authentication of the African image and decolonisation and all that.’”
As the doppelgänger, he “is the one who disturbs, who breaks through the surface of mainstream thinking and writing, who rattles at the scaffolding of what seems to hold things together; something like a specter that creeps, unexpectedly, out of the crevices of a building in which people have felt safe,” Veit-Wild says in an interview for the issue.

“Here: the building of African literature. He confronts us with our other side, which we have suppressed, the evil, irksome, uncomfortable side. This specter of our other side is our own doppelgänger, one might say, our double or twin whom we are normally not keen to meet,” she says.

Marechera has been called the man who betrayed Africa, bereft of nationalist goals, bloated with Western nihilism, postmodernism, individualism and all such reactionary nothingness. Yet Marechera’s revolutionary credibility stands up in hindsight, set against ideologically grounded and institutionally affiliated who actually betrayed Africa.

The individual is the revolutionary project’s last stand because as history progresses, it simply crystallises back to uniformity, organisation, ideology, appropriation and control. The doppelgänger is not what threatens individuality; he is what threatens uniformity and affirms the possibility of individuality. Even if it is an individuality without internal coherence.

In the systemised, mediatised and narrativised scheme of things, the doppelgänger represents the secret life of the subject, the ghost outside the plantation, the possibility of being. Even when his midwife is independence, colonialism, conservatism or late capitalism, the doppelgänger is the unsettling splinter that simply cannot be at peace with the end of history.

In Marechera’s referenced stories, including the reprinted Burning in the Rain, the doppelgänger never simply comes to replace and solidify but to falsify and to disturb. The ape staring back at the protagonist from the mirror is some sort of primal joke at the expense of the polished double. He is also the distortion questioning the authenticity of his “original.”

Remember the folktale about the baboon sent by fellow apes to the barber and the tailor to get a civilised look and marry into a human family?
Unfortunately, this “Trojan Baboon” conspiracy backfires when the newly laid ape acts stuck-up and chases his own tribesmen from his father-in-law’s field.

Imagine his terror when the betrayed comrades bring his tail, knowing full well that when they force it back on him, his fur will shoot up anew, betraying his “apeness.” The doppelgänger is the tail looking for the tamed and tanned body. The assimilated and appropriated subject lives in denial of this suppressed self, in the terror of an unwelcome appearance.

As a symbol of the colonised, the ape is both stereotypical and revolutionary. Marechera neither shies away from nor resolves history’s contradictions. Rootlessness is a scar as much as it is an ornament.

The doppelgänger frowns at the cosmetics of history but where is he from, anyway? For Marechera, blackness is incidental rather than essential, and the totalising narrative is where power resides. Western critical theory and decolonial thought are handy to the extent that they serve the sanctity of the individual’s whim.

Hanson, in the progress of his essay on the literary evolution of the doppelganger, acknowledges that the demystified, emptied of its threat by the innocent games of social media and reality television.

This demystification of the doppelganger, for Hanson, was inevitable as thinkers from Nietzsche and Freud to Levinas, Derrida and Butler, for a century, problematised the idea of a wholly bounded self for political, ethical and philosophical reasons.

Pluralistic thought, for example, upholds by the primacy of communication over identity. The doppelgänger ascends from the margin to the mainstream, emptied of the assurance of eternity and the fear of powerless he previously embodied to the mere charade of celebrity look-alikes or reality television.
What to say of these polished, filtered, picture-perfect doppelgangers of daytime television, the unison of contrarian hashtags, the institutional baggage that tames the doppelgangers of late modernity?

Do they still threaten our uniformity and affirm our suppressed individuality? Are they revolutionary splinters? Is there a place for the doppelgänger in a world sterilised in control room of Silicon (is it Olympian?) Valley?

I was recently reading about an unfolding technological ruse called the deepfake, a fake image that is convincing in its resemblance. A digitally manipulated doppelganger, so to speak. Robert Chesney explains that deepfakes emerge from a form of deep learning called “generative adversarial networks” (Gans).

One algorithm, the generator, creates content modeled on source data, while a second algorithm, the discriminator, tries to identify the artificial content. “Since each algorithm is constantly training against the other, such pairings can lead to rapid improvement, allowing Gans to produce highly realistic yet fake audio and video content,” writes Chesney in Foreign Affairs.

History is the spectacle of power aping revolution. What power appropriates must be the likeness of revolution emptied of the potency. According to Guy Debord, the idea is to intercept, empty and redeploy revolutionary ideas for a popular buy-in, all in the service of power.

A sort of a Gan from whence the new doppelgangers emerge, uniform rather than individual; from whence the new revolutions emerge mainstream rather than contrarian? Are the new doppelgangers merely deepfakes? Does anything change if all that doppelgangers unpacked, after all, was our emptiness and falseness?

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