Monday, December 5, 2011

In A Mirror, Blackly

Since almost all of my friends and two out of my three Twitter followers are Americans, I feel that my subject requires some explanation. This is a reflection on the Channel 4 production “Black Mirror: The National Anthem,” which was written by comedian, dramatist, opinion columnist, and bitter but lovable asshole Charlie Brooker (Screenwipe, 10 O'Clock Live, How TV Ruined Your Life, The Guardian). It aired on 4th December. As far as I know, it wasn't screened on any stations in the States, but in the 21st Century that shouldn't stop you. I urge you to find it.
What spoilers I do provide will not detract from the immediacy of the program, and I have omitted what I believe to be the most tragic aspect, as that scene is possible to ruin. You may feel safe in reading this if you have not seen Black Mirror yet.
I'm not a TV reviewer, or even a blogger (where forms requiring more than 140 characters of attention [cont...]), but I feel compelled to write on two aspects of the first story in the Black Mirror trilogy which have been overlooked in the traditional media reviews, the reaction of viewers who have taken to Twitter, and the questions about human nature this stark picture raises.
I've read all the major British papers' reviews of “The National Anthem.” Initially, this was to see how advance viewing held up to my high expectations of Brooker. After I had seen the program, this curiosity turned to disbelief: how could none of the papers have mentioned, amid favorable comparisons to The Twilight Zone, just how traumatic Black Mirror is? It falls into the same category as the Coen Brothers' No Country For Old Men and Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers: that is, it is excellent, but the world it depicts is so psychopathic – yet so familiar and plausible – that one is left feeling so nauseated and disturbed that no degree of excellence could compel a second viewing. I didn't sleep well as a result of seeing it, and I still feel slightly physically ill. Once the initial traumatic phase wears off enough to allow for reflection, one is left with an even more troubling question:
What does it say about us as a species and as a culture that the most intellectually-stimulating television drama of 2011 has as its driving force a global movement compelling the British Prime Minister to fuck a pig?
In addition to convincing nearly 4 million people (according to BARB) to watch simulated man-on-pig sex, which is an achievement in itself, Charlie Brooker has managed to disgust me out of my entire repertoire of Welsh jokes, and make an even more acidic statement on contemporary art than the 1994 K Foundation award. It goes without saying that, in spite of this, I wouldn't have "seen it through to the end" if it weren't for compelling characters and plot. The urgency of the horror is derived from real life scenarios such as Gordon Brown's being forced by social media to issue an apology.
How much have we changed in the first century of our transformation to electric media if only thirty years ago Mary Whitehouse, CBE (yeah, fucking CBE) was banging on about pim-holes, pempsliders, and Daleks being too scary? A great deal, surely, but in America our regulatory stipulations lag further behind.
In America, it is all too easy to find stories of the goriest murders, with seven second jump cut action thrill scenes of gleeful artisan flamethrowing interspersed with long shots of witty banter over the charred human remains. It is all too easy to find the same glibness applied to such violent and deplorable acts as rape. All this and a healthy sample of verbal abuse for the kiddies to mimic and willful ignorance to boost your self-esteem thrown in, all on the terrestrial stations, straight to your home to stoke your hard-on for military excess. Meanwhile, nipples are digitally removed from lingerie catalogs; may God have mercy on us if one appears on a glowing screen.
But I digress... Suffice it to say, this won't be on our airwaves any time soon, even though it is the first meaningful look into the dark soul of our new age in the cult of glowing rectangles. The vomit-worthy physicality of Black Mirror is a necessary expression of our emotional disconnection from our disturbed internet personas.
The 10,00 tweets per minute egging PM Michael Callow on and the death threats against his family, which ultimately break his resolve, are not solely the domain of dystopian fiction. In our own world, behind the platitudes and conspiracy theorists available online, one finds an undercurrent mix of anonymous pointless venting and genuine hatred for others, both of which can be traced to a constellation of factors including the alienation and isolation of global communications and our culture-wide confusion about how we, as individuals, are to interface with a society so scarred by the integrated circuit that the institutions and careers our parents hold dearest have been replaced by automated racks of servers and a psychic vacuum.
If I can't see the person at the other end of of my vitriol, surely it is no harm to wish AIDS or cancer on them, or to hurl racist slurs on them, or even simply to describe their dearest work of art a pointless piece of shit. In the last decade, rightly-if-too-infrequently called the Uh-Oh's, joking about AIDS took on the status of a meme, right along with more innocent fair like rickrolling. This despite the fact that persons active in the LGBT community from a short 15 or 20 years prior had undergone an experience as harrowing as a war and thus deserved a measure of respect usually reserved for veterans. This despite the fact that if you live in the developed world, someone you know has died of cancer or has been cut and poisoned and burned to death first. At the heart of the population of Black Mirror's quasi-fictional public is a lack of empathy.
Ordinarily, one has a vague sense that bestiality is wrong or unnatural. The lack of visceral revulsion is more accurately described as a lack of imagination than as a moral failure. As Mr Brooker has put it in his other projects, our beloved box has so distorted our relationship to reality, that we mistakenly believe that we are the only losers in a world where everyone else is married to The One and living in the sort of homes you see on MTV. In the mix of alienation and dampened epathic imagination, we add the information addiction and overload that has compelled me to check on my social media profiles a dozen times in the last hour. I don't remember what you said two hours ago.
How short our collective memory has grown! From forgetting about our ongoing epidemics as they were a decade or two prior, we have moved into a period that would drive Kierkegaard, who described his own contemporaries as spectators and his own time as transitory and trivial in its concerns, to gnaw off his own limbs in a fit of madness. Earlier this year, for one day, the entire world gathered around their glowing rectangles in solidarity with Troy Davis. You had to Google that name just now. By the next day, the Twitterspheroid had returned to its regular programming of [replace movie name with bacon]. Indeed, the fictional Mr Callow's reputation as prime minister has improved a year after his demoralizing ordeal. Presumably this has nothing to do with the release of the princess and the incident has mainly been forgotten.
The relationship between imagination and empathy is most apparent in the fictional TV audience's status as audience surrogate. For the first 20 minutes of Black Mirror, we laugh along with them. By 30 minutes in, we are slightly on edge. In the climax (haw haw), we begin to feel a visceral disgust. Even the perpetrator of the kidnapping and initiator of the mob has by this point realized that he has underestimated the aspects of human nature which he relied on to carry out [his project]. Only he and Mr Callow's chief of staff are able to share in the knowledge of the day's true tragedy, brought on by our inability to look away from the media long enough to see what's going on in the world. The marks of great tragedy, horror and pity, are to be found in abundance in the final part of the drama, but there is no catharsis. The electric age society has not been purged of its evil and is free to commit it again. The most pitiful sight in drama in 2011 is either Mr Callow's profuse vomiting or the state of his relationship with Mrs Callow.
Initially, one might be excused for not understanding the merit of the comparisons to The Twilight Zone. Rod Serling dealt with such pressing issues as nuclear annihilation and racial discrimination. What possible parallels are there between that and the prime minister fucking a pig on live TV? In a world under constant threat of nuclear annihilation, a world of severe economic injustice, of racial inequality, of a lack of empathic imagination, one can scarcely imagine the effects a direct democracy carried out via social media without imagining a glib forum moderator going over his site's rules about being more creative than picking directly from the World Targets in Megadeaths manual.
What is frightening about Black Mirror, The Twilight Zone, and even the Daleks (particularly their creation myth) is the closeness of the possibility of these alternate worlds. We hate what we have been, and we fear what we could become.
Mr Brooker's Twitter followers today [the day after broadcast] tweeting at him regarding their desire for David Cameron to fuck a pig. “I bet he already has,” said one. I would get upset about it, but I'd like to get back to my TV. I'll probably have forgotten about this stupid program soon enough.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Goodbye to Flatland

Captain's Log, Stardate: 43 Bureaucracy 3177

There has been much speculation, much of it unwelcome, on the matter of who or what James Joyce is and what we ought to make of his work. Who are we to believe with so many academic careers at stake and each new theory -- in its pretentious thinker's mind -- boldly rushing where angels dare not lie in a pile of their own sick after a night of hardgoing close reading in the co of Mr John Jameson & Co. What does it all mean, if indeed any of it holds any meaning? Can the previous works hold sense while the supposed keystone of Finnegans Wake stands as a monumental prank to rival the best of them?

Mr Joyce has been accused of recapitulating everyone from Homer and Dante to all the literature of the previous millennium and even the previous millennium and a further two hundred years into our own future. We must ask in turn, if this is to be believed, who are these writers? Are they really serious, or what? Is Aeschylus the pinnacle of a long dramatic tradition or the Stephenie Meyer of "his" own time, being quite difficult about the spelling of "his" name, doomed to be perpetually burned by but never consumed in the rejections of adolescence and turning to mawkish reimaginings of past hurts in a fictional world of the supernatural? An oresting thought indeed.

Does Dante, too, so want to be a mother? He has pushed out a wet and fragile being to suck the life force directly from a teenage girl, full of anguish and screaming in a tongue only recognized by the "mad," to get a bloody nose on the playground, to blossom into the sort of guy whose clothes you buy a forgery of in the hopes of scoring with a girl at a train station... just this one time. How was Mr Joyce to triple distill the words of the sages and the lucky dopes, spilled out a spoonful of ink at a time, when the inspiration of the Holy Smokes struck those names we all recognize: Moses, the Oracles, Tennyson? Was he, in fact, plugged into a computer memory bank from the future, as Mr Philip Dick suggests? Was he brilliantly sublimating his own schizophrenic tendencies in jingle jaunty to keep from sonnez? Are we to believe that Portrait is his new life in art and Ulysses is his hellish urban stasis? What literary sins do we purge by reexamining The Wake and will saying the rosary free us any sooner? Is this permanence or impermanence? Are those really that different? Chiefly: is he serious, or what? John Bishop writes in his introduction: "Its admirers see it as a comprehensive summa of twentieth-century culture and letters; its detractors, an arrogant compilation of arcane materials patched together for the amusement of a literary elite." Isn't that two ways of saying the same thing? In the end, must we turn and shoot our poncy father The Novel in the face to fulfill the desire to be with our mad Italian mothers, making a verbal hodgepodge of the collective memory of life itself &c?

How very human to ascribe such banal motives to a man of genius! How human to expect "contradiction" to form the sign of weakness! Mr Joyce is none of these things, yet all of these things. You've just crossed over into a world with more than the usual 3+1 dimensions, into the world of cheaters and liars and people like Mr Joyce. Compared to the place you've just entered, your old world was a flatland. Those of you who have visited the world of 2+1 know what a terrifying and relativistic adventure that can be. A million ricursos in 2+1 take but a few minutes in our ordinary 3+1 frame of reference. Mr Joyce's visit to us was apparently brief, but in actuality it would have been -- to us -- several trillions of years: plenty of time to collect information about everything from primitive insects to the way thermonuclear war plays out on reality television. At once completely hyperdimensional and completely human, Mr Joyce was able to know our humanity more fully than we could, for we can never distinguish the subtle signs of permanence itself amid a sea of apparent change. (Readers with insufficient imagination are encouraged to seek out Carl Sagan's Cosmos, in which Mr Sagan illustrates how three dimensional objects would appear to two dimensional beings.)

Welcome to our extradimensional explorations. We could end up anywhere next.