Freud published his essay on the ‘uncanny’ in 1919, almost a hundred years before Brooker’s captivating TV series was created. The essay and its related concept’s influence on film, literature and psychoanalysis has been hugely important. But what exactly is ‘the uncanny’? It is a term inherently bound up with the ‘disturbance of the familiar’, with upsetting conventional definitions and perceptions of reality and truth, of feeling and thought. The creation of uncertainty, unease; the dissonant feeling of being simultaneously repelled and attracted to something. Freud defined the uncanny as a paradoxical sense of unfamiliarity growing out of the familiar; the term in German is ‘Das unheimliche’ – which literally translates to ‘the opposite of what is familiar’.
Black Mirror. Even the title is uncanny. How can a mirror be black, when the necessary function of a mirror is to reflect light, reflect a clear image? Black connotes darkness, murkiness, obscurity – hardly the silvery coating of a looking-glass, reflecting the airy features of a Victorian drawing room, or beaming back the blue sky and clouds from the gleaming ceiling of a city office block.
And yet: paradox. The mirror is subverted, turned away from reality into the black chasm we have created in our ultra-mediated lives. Brooker’s series presents a startlingly chilly vision of a near-future society, one where mirrors no longer reflect back on reality, but on representations of reality. The paradox of the real in Brooker’s dystopian vision is that feeling what is real depends more and more on images of the real, rather than experience itself. The most catastrophic events of the show – I’m thinking the bizarre terror of Episode 1, Series 1 where a Prime Minister is led into having intercourse with a farmyard animal, live on TV to the gawping nation – are caused by an overflow of media messages and images, which impact reality in a hyper-real way. In this world, where real events are simulated first in the media, and then permeate reality, reality itself has become its own obscurity; a mise-en-abyme or hall-of-mirrors effect where we are constantly recording, representing and replaying ourselves in the abyss of cyberspace and media technology. A disturbance of the familiar, certainly: a disturbance of the real.
Over thirty years ago, the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard made a similar point in his text Simulacra and Simulation. Baudrillard argued that reality was being dissolved into a simulacrum. In past ages, signs had a fixed referent to something real. Yet with the explosion of mass-produced goods, the commodity was born. This relates to Marx’s idea of the ‘commodity fetish’: as goods become mass-marketed, no longer are they bought for their ‘use-value’: when a material item, even something as mundane as a bottle of water, becomes a commodity, it ‘changes into a thing that transcends sensuousness’. Value becomes linked to the product itself, rather than the cost of its production. Sign-value replaces use-value. The value of a bottle of water is linked not to its use-function as a quencher of thirst but because of the shape of the bottle, the style of the branding, the allure of the image portrayed in advertising campaigns. In contemporary society, Baudrillard argues, this has escalated to the point whereby signs and reality have become blurred, replacing a relatively simple distinction between signs and signifieds (the advertisement and the real product, for example) with a ‘simulacrum’: ‘the truth that conceals that there is none’. In the entirety of our experience, meaning and reality have become usurped by a hyper-reality of symbols and signs, which point not to a real object, but to more signs – they conceal the relevance of reality to everyday experience. We are then truly living in an unreal world.
Brooker addresses this idea in the opening episode to Series 2, ‘Be Right Back’. It asks: what happens when the effect of reproduction is enacted upon humans? When the human body and individual personality itself is subjected to fetishism; when the self is fragmented into the myriad traces of text it has trailed in its online life? Jacques Derrida defined the trace as ‘the sign of the presence of an absence’: the uncanny occupation of a liminal position between the real and the imaginary, between the sign and the signified – a rift tearing up the easy system of metaphysics, of our knowledge of what exists, and how.
In Brooker’s fiction (fictional, or half-fictional? Genre itself eludes simple definition – the series lingers between dystopia, horror, realism…hyper-realism), it is possible for a woman to order a cyborg replica of her dead husband. At first, she interacts with an online version rather than a corporeal one. Through instant messenger and phone conversations, she literally contacts her dead husband. And yet it is not really her dead husband, or is it? An assemblage of all the data her social-media-obsessed husband left in traces online, his presence is itself a trace: an uncanny ghost voice constructed from dead voices.
This is the uncanny resonance of the title: ‘be right back’. It hauntingly resonates with the much-used phrase familiar to all users of instant messengers, the signal that one’s physical presence will briefly be absent, although they are not fully ‘gone’ – they haven’t logged offline. ‘Be right back’, you say, when you are going to make a cup of coffee, when you change your status; a signal that your face is no longer behind the screen. ‘Be right back’ is that queer sense of presence/absence that seems to rupture ordinary human interaction, where the interlocutors know each other as corporeal figures and not avatars. The avatar is always present, but it is the mark of an absence: the mark of the speaker’s physical absence. When we talk online, there is always a strangeness, a distance, a whiff of the hyper-real; as if we are playing a game, talking to someone who is quite but not quite the person they are.
When the protagonist takes the next step in ordering the robotic facsimile of her beloved deceased, the strangeness is taken to a whole new level. We have the signs of the commodity fetish: delivered in a box, complete with instruction manual and shiny robotic skin. The human body made perfect, made into product. This of course is not itself an innovation: countless sci-fi books and TV series and films have portrayed the human robot, the automaton. What is particularly intriguing is the reproduction of the dead husband’s personality from text. Not handwriting, not speech, but the representation of voice through text.
At times, the robot’s speech is stunted. He tries his best to say the things that ‘Ash’, the former husband, would say. Yet the robot cannot completely replicate the human. ‘Ash’, as the name suggests, is dust, a powdery scattering of human traces, shimmering in the protagonist’s memory, in the character’s online presence, elusive and ethereal. Perpetually present, but not fully there. The mechanical creation cannot assume the body of the deceased; it can only simulate the fragments of his words. The movement of his face, his eyes, or his synthetic limbs will never wholly replicate what once was there. Ash cannot be resurrected, Ash is ash.
The robot’s automatism is primarily recalled when there is a gap between the woman’s memory of her husband and the robot’s personality. The protagonist is painfully reminded of the fact that it is not a real, living thing – not the warm body she once loved, still loves – but a mechanical product. Watching the woman interact with her robotic husband, touching his flawless synthetic skin, listening to the replicated voice of the deceased – at one point even having sex with him – was a disturbing experience. I felt unsettled; certainly I was experiencing the uncanny. The most carnal of human experiences – actual physical contact – simulated by a robot, with another human, completely explodes all notions of the natural by opening up so many strange possibilities.
Yet, as the show reminds us, technology cannot fully replicate reality. It may attempt to deflect our attention from truth – from the truth of death – with its simulations, but there are always points of rupture, where the fabric of the virtual is torn. At one point, the protagonist experiences distress and asks the robot to leave the room when his words don’t match up to her memory: “Ash would have argued” she says.
This uncertainty about the human and the machine haunts throughout Brooker’s award-winning series. How much of our lives has become merely the voices we leave on answer-phones, in text-messages and Facebook statuses? As communication becomes increasingly mediated, do our personalities become more constructed, more performative? With the advantage of anonymity, or the avatar concealment of the face allowed by the internet, people have time to carefully construct their responses, to portray a certain self-image, to play with the unfamiliar. ‘Be Right Back’ highlights the inadequacy of technology to embody – literally – the highly complex, fractured and fluid nature of the human self. Living more and more online, Black Mirror suggests in general, we creep closer and closer to the edge that demarcates our fundamental perceptions – our notions of truth, reality, existence, humanity itself. Brooker says of his show:
‘Each episode has a different cast, a different setting, even a different reality. But they’re all about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.’
It is this notion of ‘difference’ that creates the uncanny effect. What is the difference between things? The series poses more questions, perhaps, than it answers. Another uncanny effect. Brooker provides multiple possible realities, and thus renders the future with an inherent sense of what Derrida would call ‘undecidability’. It is not like a conventional dystopia, presenting a single, glaring vision warning of the future; instead, it troubles our expectations, it presents numerous ideas of what the next decade, or tomorrow, may hold. The show holds up a mirror to our society, one that is black – foreboding, sinister – and, fundamentally, refracted into different possible outcomes. Yet it is also a void, in the sense that Black Mirror itself is a fiction, where we may lose our sense of the real – collapsing the ever-familiar world of technology portrayed onscreen with our present everyday lives. It is in this threshold between today and tomorrow, between reality and fiction, that Black Mirror lies. And it is in this threshold that we lose our subjectivity, in the overwhelming threat of our own behaviour and the ghostly online world that could collapse our sense of existence.
Works Cited/further reading:
Baudrillard, J. (2006) Simulacra and Simulation, translated by Sheila Faria Glaser, University of Michigan Press.
Bennett, A. and N. Royle (2004) ‘The Uncanny’ in An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory (Harlow: Pearson Education), pp. 34-42.
Black Mirror – Be Right Back [Season 2, Episode 1] by Charlie Brooker.
Felluga, Dino. ‘Modules on Marx: On Fetishism.’ Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Purdue University. Available at: http://www.purdue.edu/guidetotheory/marxism/modules/marxfetishism.html. Accessed 30/4/13.
The Guardian. (2011). Charlie Brooker: the dark side of our gadget addiction. Available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/dec/01/charlie-brooker-dark-side-gadget-addiction-black-mirror. Last accessed 30/04/13.
Reynolds, J. (2010) ‘Jacques Derrida’. Available at: http://www.iep.utm.edu/derrida/#SH3d. Last accessed 30/04/13.