Imagine it’s the future, the Earth is at war with aliens, and you’re responsible for maintaining the defense system that fends them off. After ten years of perfect attendance, listless from drudgery and calculation, it becomes evident that your once honed acumen has blunted; you take a weekend off and go camping. On the way back, you see Bob in the same traincar with five soldiers. You wave at your friend. His response? Nothing. Before your stop, they surround you and you find out that Bob suspects you’ve been replaced with an android bomb. You laugh it off. It’s a lot to take in, but it’s not funny to Bob. Sensing his hesitation, you slip through them and escape. Eventually, they find you. Guns appear, and now Bob’s serious look has reddened into fury. You convince him, bringing up the time he met his wife, reminding him how much she hated him at first—things only you knew. You escape again and head home, sure your wife will clear this all up, but Bob is already inside. Your only hope is the campsite. Maybe something there could prove you’re you. Along the way, you come upon a wrecked spacecraft. Bob sees it and he’s convinced. Your pulse slows; it’ll be ok. They open the craft and you’re inside, lifeless, reclined against the controls. Abashed, you stand as the realization sinks in; you detonate, destroying yourself, your friends, and the planet. This is the premise of Philip K. Dick’s short story “Imposter” and a key to conceptualizing COVID-19.
The short definition of an imposter is one who passes themself off as another—the intent to deceive is implicit in the act. [I buy a fancy satchel, wear a lab coat, and then charge for medical services I don’t know how to perform.] Other conceptions of imposterhood are linked to pathological diagnoses: two examples are Capgras syndrome [I believe my loved one has been replaced by an identical imposter] and Fregoli delusion [I believe this group of people in my life is actually this one person who dresses up as them all]. These conceptions of imposterhood present two figures: imposter and denouncer. The former deceives everyone but the latter. In the 70s, this conception was modified; whereas the previous definitions presented us with an imposter who fooled everyone but the denouncer, Imposter Syndrome melds these figures while allowing the persecutory specter of the latter to persist as a latent threat. [I don’t deserve this great job and everyone around me is going to notice that I suck at it]. The sufferer cannot internalize their success and become both imposter and denouncer.
The COVID-19 pandemic—read according to Phillip K. Dick—has ruptured this amalgamation. However, this break has not been a clean one. In fact, the denouncer takes with them the discredit owed to the imposter. No longer do they see themselves as a misfit living in fear of persecution but are convinced that everyone but them is wrong. With its extended incubation period and possible asymptomatic presentation, COVID-19 creates imposters of us all while allowing us to think we are who we are: healthy me. The resulting shift calls into question the foundational identity we take for granted. And while COVID imposters are not immune to the virus, they are to denunciation, wholly convinced of their noncommunicable state. Most pernicious, is the belief that the risk is theirs alone to take but viruses are social aren’t they? I’d like to make it clear that conceptualizing COVID-19 infection as a sort of imposterhood is not asking us to view others—or the infected—with suspicion but the opposite. It is to ask a simple question, could I be wrong?