Monday, March 30, 2015

Black Mirror, TV in the Time of Dystopia

I’m not a big TV watcher but when something keeps popping up in my cultural purview then I know I should pay attention. This was happening repeatedly with the British TV show Black Mirror that originally aired in 2011 (I’m obviously out of the TV loop) on Channel 4 and has three seasons. Everyone kept telling me to watch it so I did and it made me think about this time we are living in.  

To cut to the chase, Black Mirror is a show about telecommunicated dystopia whose undercurrents include love, sex, violence and dissociation. Created by Charlie Booker, there is no doubt his intention of mood and focus. The title alone is a reference to the constancy of the screen we are in front of and attached to. In his own words, “If technology is a drug – and it does feel like a drug – then what, precisely, are the side-effects? This area – between delight and discomfort…The 'black mirror' of the title is the one you'll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone." This focus rings true throughout all the first two seasons, which I binge watched in less then 24 hours.

Maybe a good way to describe the tone of the show is to start with the first episode that is entitled “The National Anthem.” Here the plot is simple and twisted. Princess Susanna has been captured and her hostage(s) threaten to execute her at 4:00pm that same day unless the Prime Minister has unsimulated sex with a pig on live television. A brutal and effective storyline.

All of Black Mirror’s episodes are split into parts and these parts plop you into the next fold of the story. There is continuity but it’s a show that demands you pay attention and to make mental leaps with it. In the case of episode one, the parts are split in trying to think of alternatives, trying to find the captors and then finally the PM having to do the ghastly deed. Throughout, the spectator, those that are witness to the PM’s enforced bestiality on screen and you as the viewer, are central and complicit. The twitter feeds, the popularity ratings of the PM, and the media coverage of this ransom demand are all central to this storyline.

This is where the dystopic comes in and where the lines of mediation, mob think, and the grotesque capacities of human spectacle and the desire for it are centralized around technologies that effect the body. In the first case the technologies that articulate populist opinion effectively willed a man to have sex with a pig. In other episodes it takes on more directly embodied usurpation.

One such episode is “The Entire History of You” in which most people have a “grain” implanted near the back of their ear which allows them to record, and replay everything that they see and experience. They have a small button like device in which they can search and replay their archived lives and when this occurs their eyes film over white and they have a catatonic gaze while reviewing their past. This story was about the obsessive minutia of a husband and wife and an affair. The precision of replay, nitpicking, finding evidence and restructuring truths is all done through this memory retrieval device. It is unforgivingly anxiety filled and brutal in its relentless evaluation of self and others.

This implantation of a self is taken to a bizarre extreme in “Be Right Back” in which the husband dies and the wife using new software technologies literally replicates his body and personality through the archived avatar of his online content. This is a very familiar storyline, Frankenstein, and even more recently the movie “Her” but in this instance it is not the animalistic monster created by Shelley nor is it the stylized disembodied uber consciousness of Spike Jonze. Here it is creepy, sad and undesirable but oddly inescapable and understandable.

Other episodes have a touch more violence in them but throughout technology is the primary interlocutor of communication between people. Whether it is lovers, children, or politics, technology is this constant device, tool, and force that is an echo chamber for the human condition.

Booker peddles this line quite finely, is it a blessing? Is it a curse? From what I have watched it seems like it just is and that in itself is terrifying. The settings in which these episodes take place feel like near futures. The technologies are different but they are believable as well. They seem inevitable and possible which unnerves because of that closeness. In each episode all the characters, settings, and storylines change. You don’t get attached, you don’t get beyond the retelling of a circumstance and this also doubles this eerie disconnect. They are not characters in the long, connective, narrative arch format but are interchangeable and contained. This touches close to your own subjectivity because aren’t we all just one piece in a large storyline?

The themes of the technological dystopia are fascinating to see in this format because although it is dealing with some heavy stuff it is a TV show and it knows how to work within this medium. It very successfully is addictive and is hook-you-in type of TV, (which makes the whole mediation theme even more potent). But besides its formal successes I think Black Mirror has cultural poignancy because it reflects the times we are living and we seem to be sliding into the pit of this new time and feeling.

Anthropocene, Accelerationists, Late-Capitalism, Postmodernism, these are all buzzwords of the last few years and this is deeply a part of the art being made in all forms. Visual artists are making works about the body, the cyborg, animated disembodiment, and technologies of the self in the form of engineered processes and materials. Music has become hyper mechanized for the purposes of making the perfect formula song or to stretch out the scope of collective experience with sound waves. Movies are apocalyptic, intergalactic, and barren traumas both large and small. Clothing is rive gauche refugee. Science is the brain. Psychedelic drugs are popular again. Disconnecting, unplugging and not using social media is on an uptick. Finding a tribe, a crew, or a community seems more like a necessity then a socialized desire and the return to the land as a hermit or survivalist seems more appealing everyday.

All these things are happening, have been happing, and will continue to happen but this current feeling of peaking, or more as I said, a slipping into this state seems to be reflecting a turn of something. Maybe that turn is already here, maybe it has already happened. I’m not sure but there is anxiety in the air, there is a frenetic impulse to build, burn, escape, and to start anew.

Black Mirror is just one example of this larger trend and watching it I had an affirmed thought for this near future’s survival and that has to do with love. Love is the only thing that will keep us human. In Black Mirror technologies have affected the interactions of the body and sex but most intensely it perverts love and therein lays the greatest disquiet.

If this feeling I mentioned is the new state of things, if this is now the tenor of our times, perhaps, with hope and effort there can be a way to make love and the relationships that we have with others not doomed to the same imaginings of Black Mirror. This is the strangest thing about this new feeling. It feels doomed, procedural, and more then anything inevitable.