Zelig disease as our best hope

Zelig AD suffers from Zelig’s disease.

With doctors, [he] assumes the role of a doctor; with psychologists he says he is a psychologist; at the solicitors he claims to be a solicitor. [He] doesn’t just make these claims, he actually plays the roles.

Clearly AD suffers this condition for good medical reasons.  Cardiac arrest caused damage to the fronto-temporal region of his brain. 

But perhaps you recognize something in AD as you did in Zelig, Woody Allen’s character in a film of the same name. 

If we de-pathologize this condition for a moment, it looks adaptive.  The world grows more various and more demanding.  We are defined by looser boundaries, fewer "off hours," and a diversity of stimulus, opportunity, obligation and response. 

Zelig’s condition might be useful.  What if we could be exactly what people want us to be with no opportunity cost.  We could be X with the Xs, and still be Y with the Ys.  Perfectly fluid, undetectably various, effortlessly responsive. 

I mean this is what we hope for in all circumstances.  We all know people who are too sweet to be tough and others too tough to be sweet…to name just one of the failures of "coverage" that can challenge the biographical fortunes of the individual.  The costs of even this ordinary failure in versatility are high: wrong jobs, failed educations, bad marriages. 

But the world has grown in its complexity, breadth and depth.  There is more "identity space" out there, and therefore more possibility of contradiction and personal shortfall.  Who can be all things to all people, now that all people are so very various?

AD seems to have lost the capacity to keep his own identity constant…

Very wise.  Yes, it looks like a symptom or a condition to the British Association of Psychology.  (Yum, more to cure.)  And in AD’s case it plainly is.  But for the rest of us…who wants to keep his identity constant in a world like our own?

It’s all very Stuart Kauffman, the complexity theorist from the Sante Fe institute who asks us to consider the structural advantages of the "complex adaptive system."  Real adaptation, Kauffman will tell us, comes from being messy and multiple.

Naturally, this is a power that will have to be used for good.  We don’t like the sound of the character in Catch Me If you Can, Spielberg’s 2002 movie, staring Leonard DiCaprio.  Zelig is a sweet, bumbling idiot, motiving by a wish to please and an effort to do his best.  It is precisely this sincerity we hope for, and not the cunning of the con man.

Certainly, this is what we do in an ethnographic interview, trying to turn ourselves into the other.  So three times today, in people’s kitchens in Brussels, I tried as much as possible to become them.  It was pretty.  It wasn’t successful.  But boy was it interesting.  But forget interesting.  Someday, very soon, it’s going to be adaptive.   


Anonymous.  2007.  Brain damage turns man into human chameleon.  The British Psychological Society.  March 20, 2007.  here.


Thanks to Johan Strandell for spotting this article and giving me a head’s up.

2 thoughts on “Zelig disease as our best hope

  1. LK


    The Zelig as aspirational character idea brings many things to mind. In no particular order…

    1. Now, more than at any other historical moment, people can claim credentials without actually having them, or with the claimed credentials being watered down versions of the original (eg in the national post you can do a queens/cornell MBA by correspondence and a visit or two)

    2. Definitions are loose…i have met numerous people who call themselves ‘designers’ or ‘producers’ yet they do not possess the skills required of designers and producers in the marketplace. (perhaps this is a marketplace vs non marketplace issue, or a case of everyone wanting to be a designer or a producer; note to those who think they want to be a producer; trust me, you don’t)

    3. I have it on authority from a Professor friend that when he tried to confirm someone’s claim on their resume that they had a Stanford PhD and he called Stanford to verify he was informed that the University is not allowed to share that information. As this is the case I am seriously considering adding PhD (Stanford) to my cv

    4. Alice in Wonderland’s conversation with the Caterpillar; meant to impress upon us that being a changeling is a strange and troubling thing

    “The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence: at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice. Who are YOU? said the Caterpillar.

    This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, I–I hardly know, sir, just at present– at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.

    What do you mean by that? said the Caterpillar sternly. Explain yourself!

    I can’t explain MYSELF, I’m afraid, sir said Alice, because I’m not myself, you see.

    I don’t see, said the Caterpillar.

    I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly, Alice replied very politely, for I can’t understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.”



  2. Daniel Rosenblatt

    As Jackson Lears (1983) has argued, this chameleon-like quality has been both understood as adoptive and felt as troubling to people (or at least members of the urban professional elites) since the dawn of the modern era–since, that is, people have regularly interacted with others whom they know on a limited basis. The idea that we should stress less about this is probably a good one, but unlikely to b completely possible, since we have so much invested (culturally, psychologically) in the notion of authentic self-hood. Instead we will probably simply continue to live out this contradiction, seeking our authentic self-hood in (among other things) forms of consumption that can be understood as NOT consumption–like tattoos and extreme sports on the one hand and (perhaps?) the accoutrements of domestic life on the other.

    Lears, T. J. Jackson 1983. From salvation to self-realization: Advertising and the therapeutic roots of the consumer culture, 1880-1930. In The culture of consumption: Critical essays in American history, 1880-1980, edited by R. W. Fox and T. J. J. Lears. New York: Pantheon. 3-38.

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