Collectives, care and isolation in Oreet Ashery’s Revisiting Genesis

<written in 2017, was to be developed into part of a publication>

 

Revisiting Genesis is a twelve-episode web series produced by Oreet Ashery, a transdisciplinary visual artist engaged with “bio/political fiction, gender materiality and potential communities.”[1] Revisiting Genesis explores digital environments, death-industry services, neoliberal necropolitics, post-industrialism and multiculturalism. The series comes from Oreet’s own experiences of seeing friends and artists dying online, in particular feminist artist Alexis Hunter[2] who documented her final days in hospital on Facebook. The series uses a combination of script and improvisation, blurring distinctions between fiction and lived experience. The three main narrative threads – Genesis’ slideshow, Bambi[3] and Nurse Jackie[4] exploring options for his digital legacy, and the stories of real people with life-limiting conditions – are presented in fragmentary formations that offer a turbid perception of the social ensemble: that of dispersed seriality[5] and market behaviour.

The commodity here is death – the afterlife – in which a legacy contact is selected (slash competes),[6] familial territories are enforced via inbox,[7] avatars are created making wonky co-declarations: we are futurists!,[8] smartphone séances and diagnosis-ware –please speak clearly into the handset stating your symptoms– and Nurse Jackie composes slideshows[9] that recompose the (soon to be) composting. In this text, I am interested in the collective formations and subsequent dispersals that occur in the web series, alongside what this means for care and solidarity within a larger psychic health in which isolation dominates social practices.[10]

Genesis is the central figure, the title of the series itself suggesting rebirth, or a second origin.[11] Connected by their Jewish migrant heritage, she is seen to be a reincarnation of artist Dora Gordine and Amy Winehouse, however her slideshow is also gleaned from Oreet’s own archives. Genesis’ presence is that of a disappearing figure, and is said to be ‘caught in a feminist death cycle.’ Attention is paid to the disappearance of women throughout the series, and subsequent developments in the story also stress the disappearances of spaces for minorities – in particular the working classes and migrants.

This text is indebted to contributions by the Revisiting Genesis collaborative writing group. Although our collaborative writing never much materialised beyond minute taking, their thoughts and insights offered new intensities and virtual mappings. Thank you to Oreet Ashery, Coral Brookes, Rosaliina Elgland, Ricardo Guimaraes, Kayla Izikowitz, Jun Lim, Zviki Mutyambizi, Ruyin Nabizadeh, Olga Paczka, Mi Park, Craig Thomas, et al. We experienced individual and collective grief, even joy in our encounters – and a wedding! In spite of now-expired visas, this is part of an unfinished project yet to be realised. Our discussions presence themselves, I hope to do them justice, even in partiality.[12]

null

-Please wait whilst we transfer you, a member of our team will contact you as soon as possible- [13]

Genesis is dying.

“At least, we think she is.”

 In the Unavowable Community, Maurice Blanchot writes that “to remain present in the proximity of another who by dying removes [themself] definitely, […] this is what puts me beside myself, this is the only separation that can open me, in its very impossibility, to the Openness of a community.” Much like Genesis’ friends, Blanchot doesn’t “keep up simply to help [them] die, but to share the solitude of the event” [14] that is most fully theirs whilst it dispossesses them absolutely. This means that in grief, or the process of dying, you are dispossessed of the sovereign self because the limits of self-sufficiency are exposed – opening you to the possibility of solitude-challenging collectivity. The reality of our existence as interdependent beings is laid bare.

It is through this vulnerability that Genesis becomes an uncertain and fragile center for the group. Genesis’ friends come to understand themselves as “a spontaneous group formation out of seriality.”[15] Genesis’ recomposition is the concern that her friends share, putting them beside themselves whilst opening them to commonality. From this grey point, “friendship means sharing a refrain, a semiotic set that allows us to see the same vision and helps to create a world out of chaos.”[16] Nurse Jackie assists the group and their vision, composing Genesis’ slideshow through archival and narrative reconstructions. This involves “an activity of selection, elimination and extraction […] to take something from chaos across the filter or sieve of the space that has been drawn.”[17]

Even though the group has entered into a process in which “everyone in turn serves as the unifier of the other members.”[18] It does not necessarily mean it is always successful and this group-in-fusion strains itself at the borders of solitude. The intensity of the dispossessive encounter leads to resistance. One of Genesis’ friends attempts to reclaim (possess) themselves through a reassertion of solitude, whilst another attempts to hold the unity:

“…some space, I need to be alone.”

“we should stick together.”

“I really need to be alone.”

Friendship is further challenged in a previous scene from another narrative – that of performance artist Annie Brett. Annie has Crohn’s disease[19] and the nature of her condition means she has to spend long stretches of time in hospital. Nurse Jackie queries her about loneliness, to which Annie replies:

“… I’ve got a very good friend … who actually came in to see me, in hospital, once … funny enough, she wasn’t actually there to see me … to have that five minutes … talking … it reminded me what again I was fighting for … almost like another drug had entered my system … boosted the need to get out, almost the immune system …”[20]

To reframe both of these scenes, it is not friendship itself that is under question, but the conditions that make friendship possible. The structural weakness of the social fabric jeopardises “the very possibility of communication, empathy and solidarity.”[21] The first can be read as isolation necessitated through processes of subjectification that privilege self-sufficiency. The second is isolation unwillingly endured because of chronic illness, requiring a rerouting through technology. Annie’s comments are noticeable for the prominence of communication technologies, in conjunction with her physical capacity for participation.[22] The surprise –oh!– of the accidental hospital visit solicits friendships sustained primarily through “actions without an actor” that “play out on the ground of social visibility, but they don’t create any common ground in the space of consciousness and affectivity.”[23] Instant messaging being one example of actions without an actor – for instance, think of those you speak to online but who do not acknowledge you in the street.[24] A re-evaluation of the social constructions of friendship and its mediations is demanded in order to revalue the corporeal mind[25] and what this means for the chronically ill and/or disabled. Seeing Annie as a corporeal actor beyond virtual platforms is the –oh!– of empathetic recognition.

null

Early on, Bambi is offered the choice “your right to total erasure”[26] an acid soaked data stick frozen in resin, printed with the refrain:

ne me quitte(s) pas [27]

This consummate object holding upon its surface an eerie cry of alien actors.

The serial interchangeability of actors behind digital actions enforces precarity in lived social relations. In desperation, this scarcity of affective solidarity can exhibit itself as a certain self-interested competitiveness. Genesis’ friends enter into a competitive relation when a legacy contact needs to be chosen, in order to take care of Genesis’ digital assets. In this scene, Genesis is the object of a smartphone séance, resisting the summons of the group, manifested as ‘sister’s grey matter.’ In Sartre’s framework,

“what look like static physical objects can be translated into human relationships of which they are the disguise, or what look like direct, face-to-face human relationships can be seen to constitute mere reflections of inert objects and material systems of things.”[28]

Petrifying (wo)man in order to animate matter, Genesis becomes the practico-inert object her friends are serialised by, slipping into individualism.[29] The friends gather around ‘her’, sharing a common objective yet promoting their individual interests. They bay at the screen, the expressive delineating the possessive:

“… choose me Genesis … choose me …”

null

These are the contemporary conditions we have to work from, proliferation of capitalist technics reinstating organic scarcity and separation, and to quote Deleuze and Guattari: “in animals as in human beings, there are rules of critical distance for competition.”[30] In a state of succession without coexistence, an assertion of bourgeois individualism attempts to smooth disruption. One of Genesis’ friends does this, attempting to stabilise themselves through laying claim to artistic production in a reassertion of possessive individualism – manifesting again in competition:

“In the field we work in, there isn’t really space for two people doing something so similar, is there Genesis?”[31]

Guattari writes that we have lost the languages of human solidarity.[32] Conditions of possibility are foreclosed in this context of competitive relations, for example, what might Genesis bring to the aforementioned field that her friend may not? In an unpublished text Acid Communism, Mark Fisher writes that “capital necessarily and always blocks the production of common wealth.” This ideological project can be seen to manifest in the consolidations and marketisations of educational structures.

Revisiting Genesis is concerned with the disappearance of spaces for minorities and it is to be argued that the real movement of accelerated capital is leaving-behind.[33] Using material from Ashery’s archives, Nurse Jackie tells Genesis’ story of the Charles Keene College in Leicester. It is here in 1988 that she[34] made costumes for dance classes and Nurse Jackie explains that

“… making those costumes gave you a creative outlet and a sense of community and that was important to you as a recent immigrant coming to Leicester.”

Charles Keene offered a space for experimentation that didn’t belong in professional-producing factories. The Undercommons argues that professionalisation, in its negligence, is “devoted to the asocial”[35] and involves “the reduction and command of the social individual.”[36] The college merger is one such mechanism, as Nurse Jackie explains:

“… for many years we have been witnessing the consolidation of small autonomous colleges into composite organisms made up of multicampus merger universities run by centralised management …”

image 

This is a form of consciousness deflation, an intensification of serial dispersal, students as statistics, interchangeable as part of Leicester College – now one of the UK’s largest colleges. The Undercommons argues: “does the critical academic not teach how to deny precisely what one produces with others”[37] and it is to be argued that the oppressive frameworks of professional practice and job scarcity enforce this delineating and possessive ethos. To continue the quote from Acid Communism, Mark Fisher argues that “instead of seeking to overcome capital, we should focus on what capital must always obstruct: the collective capacity to produce, care and enjoy.”[38] The macro-consolidation of campuses is such an obstruction, however in its homogenising movement there is a guttural churning, to quote Moten and Harney, that “the uncanny feeling we are left with is that something else is there in the undercommons.”[39] This is where the outsiders attempt to consolidate themselves after the demolition of spaces that the profession(al)s did not recognize and subsequently folded. Increasing numbers of students are pushed through failing structures, and calls for the ‘creative side of withdrawal’[40] become snarled in a tricky reclamation -you felt like a fraud, you had to go … was it the flu or the immigrant in you-[41] from dominant discourses of failure, unprofessionalism and discrimination[42] in places like the academy where feeling welcomed is not universal. This institutional structure is symptomatic of a capitalism whose dominant mode is consumption, embodied by the marketisation of education. These material conditions perhaps even denying (official) entry.[43]

Few other professions struggle for self-determination than nursing.[44] Under contemporary conditions, there are alarming similarities between sociologists writing about workplace resistance in call centres and the palliative care nurses’ dialogue in Episode 9. The nurses dislike acknowledging the target economy of their work and it appears in momentary lapses … I’m trying to sell the patient … sell… I shouldn’t use that … the real movement of the situation can only be read by actor Akiya Henry in her role of Nurse Jackie, “But it’s true isn’t it! You’re becoming a sales person.” The movement of the fictionalised nurse expresses the nurses’ real movement[45] – the separation between a passion for care, and the lived reality of meeting targets and pitching themselves as healthcare professionals to patients, families and colleagues in order to receive a paycheck. Similarly to telesales, there is a perceived individualisation of worker resistance because of the way the nurses have had to reconfigure the dynamics of resistance.[46] “Silent strategies of the collective disengagement from corporate culture”[47] manifest as resistance in the break:

“…tea gives you the time … to have a discussion you know … it’s almost like a timer … whereas if you’re just standing here … ooh I should go back … but you know, you’ve gotta drink your tea…“ “…sometimes I wanna have a cigarette…“[48]

image

Resistance practices such as ‘working to rule’ might be heavily criticised in care professions,[49] because of reduced complicity and empathy between staff and patients over working conditions. Part of the problematic here is how work-to-rule is conceptualised. On the one hand, there is the media conception that proclaims patient safety would be compromised, threatening the striking nurses with a deeply affective public outcry. On the other hand, work-to-rule can be a practice in which the nurses ignore the bureaucracy of their role and attend purely to patient safety and reproductive labour in order to criticise the unnecessary labour that obscures them from performing their role. Work-to-rule redefined through the lens of life-making instead of institution-building or contractual restrictions.

Human capacity have been encroached upon, emotional labour appropriated in the management of the sales encounter. This is a material structure “arising from people’s historically congealed institutionalised actions and expectations that position and limit individuals in determinate ways that they must deal with.”[50] This low period of class consciousness, driven by consumer satisfaction which turns oppressed against the oppressed in a kind of ‘negative solidarity’[51] or ‘magical voluntarism’,[52] makes us forget collective forms through mandatory individualism.[53] Capital’s mechanisms of capture (precarity, need to survive) force a serial dispersion, “for the middle classes fear the mass of workers and react preventatively [in] the lowering of salaries”[54] for example the stagnation of public sector wages. Unfortunately, in the lived reality of care and class interests, it can be difficult to separate necessity from target-economies, when patient care is intimately linked to the propagation of a service economy.

The intimacy of the role of the palliative care nurse, if we think of the first Blanchot quote,[55] pulls the nurse in two directions. One, the serial interchangeability of patients, two, the narrative punctuations, husks of dead actions (freedoms?) that sediment themselves upon the nurses’ subjectivity – calling their capacities into question.[56] An inhuman landscape is revealed, demanding interiorisation that alienates because of the sheer number of other human actions that impede individual (and collective) action. It is a confrontation that “exposes the real relations among people as inhumane.”[57]

“I feel like I’m trying to be a machine but the person, the human being side is taking control. I’m finding it very difficult to like, emotionally disconnect …”

Patients dehumanised into serial numbers and statistics, the revelation of the inhumanity of human relations realises itself.[58] Statistical anonymity:[59] one, two, three hundred slideshows and counting for Nurse Jackie. Living besides herself, a dispossession “that marks the limits of self-sufficiency and that establishes us as relational and interdependent beings” although “our interdependency establishes our vulnerability to social forms of deprivation.”[60] The nurses attend the funerals of the patients they’re close to, as well as helping people with no one left to plan their own funerals. In a society constructed upon market logic it “accepts that there must by definition be casualties.” [61] Nurses see the realities of loneliness, sharing in their patients’ ultimate solitude, their absolute dispossession. It is no consequence that failure “is personalised by the most dispossessed and powerless groups.”[62]

“… it can happen to you when you’re nursing. You know, after a while you see patient after patient … familiarity … it’s very difficult to get nurses to stay in cancer nursing … literature describe it as burnt out, that we’re burnt out emotionally because you’re having to grieve and you’re having somewhat to confront your own self and your mortality …”

image

Ungrounded, burn out prevails. In the current conditions, fantasies where “those whispered secrets and sideways glances that used to pass in the stairwell on smoke breaks start to run the show”[63] spill out into dialogue. Moten and Harney affirm that it is “in the trick of politics we are insufficient, scarce, waiting in pockets of resistance, in stairwells, in alleys, in vain.”[64] It must be understood that when practicing in bad faith, that “none of them [the nurses] have any power to disobey in the system’s terms.”[65] Freedom through the system’s terms runs the risk of reiterating bourgeois individualist hegemony where their work is not related to a larger working class struggle.[66] The system’s terms are unjust. Mark Fisher writes that “neoliberalism’s[67] victory [depended] upon a co-option of the concept of freedom. Neoliberal freedom, evidently, is not a freedom from work, but freedom through work.”[68] The inhumanity of relations demanded by target-time and statistical dehumanisation will reach burn out, intensified by the rapid depletion of the racialised and gendered workforce the NHS has always required and exploited.[69] Pushes towards the digital must reduce clerical work and resist the further precaritisation of care,[70] and a second move to recognize that the nurse as part of the class of the dispossessed, co-produces ecologies of care and life-making that must move into common practice[71] not rampant privatisation.

In the series, collective closure is attempted through Genesis’ party, a more convivial setting for the realisation of her friends’ common project[72] the reconstitution of Genesis. The narrative strands of Revisiting Genesis come together, Genesis’ friends, as well as the real people with life-limiting conditions. This unity – both the party guests and the web series itself – is a struggle between sad passions and the joyful encounters of friendship,[73] presenting itself as a “complicated coexistence of groups at various stages of their development and masses of serial individuals surrounding them.”[74] In the heat of the group’s fusion, as they come to understand themselves as such a unity, an individual breaks in the face of its cooling:

“Nothing’s ever good enough is it? It’s just not working! Look we’re all here and it’s … do we know what’s even supposed to be happening?”

-crying-

image 

In the end, the group disperses. Genesis’ grey matter remains on display. Fredric Jameson writes that “Sartre’s theory is only designed to account for the empirical fact of the very real sense of life-and-death urgency which a group-in-fusion confers on itself.”[75] Although, it is to be argued that the accumulated interpersonal history, the encounter with others, sustains a responsibility to that which has passed. In its invisibility, there is still a politics in process which may be more active than perceived, in the will to honour a memory and a history of struggle. Sartre’s framework incites Jameson’s dialectic: “until such fetishism of individual isolation itself dissolves and yields before a swarming, suffocating, intolerable feeling of human relationships and violent antagonistic struggle in all directions and at every instant […] one cannot awake until one has first measured the extent and the intensity of the nightmare.”[76]

Although in Oreet’s words:

“Casting is how we can affect the future, in Genesis’ part of the story there are no white men until episode eleven.”[77]

Continue reading “Collectives, care and isolation in Oreet Ashery’s Revisiting Genesis”

Advertisements

Blueprints for recapacitation: critiquing virtual reality as a (para-)site of care through an analysis of ‘San Junipero’ (2016)

<Essay written for my aesthetics class at CalArts>

 

The television series Black Mirror has been effective in revealing troubling insights into the possible near-futures of the technological present. Laced with creator Charlie Brooker’s trademark dark satirical humour, the series diagnoses some startling horizons for the popular imaginary. Released on Netflix in 2016—to much celebration for its uplifting narrative compared to other episodes in the series—‘San Junipero’ sees protagonists Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) pursue a moving lesbian romance described as “defy[ing] the laws of space and time”[1] in the seaside town of San Junipero, 1987. This defiance is achieved through the San Junipero[2] system–a simulated reality–offered for trial to those who are dying, before they decide whether or not to “pass over” (die) and live in (be uploaded to) San Junipero as “full-timers”.

Political theorist Bryant W. Sculos outlines what is at stake representationally when exploring new technologies in science fiction,

““San Junipero” still portrays a world where [white wealthy men] try to control the decisions other people make with their bodies, including end-of-life decisions, which can be made both simpler and more complex as technology advances. Absent a reconfiguration of power relations in our society, will we be lucky enough to end up with a world even remotely as habitable and humane as the one portrayed in “San Junipero?” […] what massive corporation is profiting off of the people who chose to live/die in San Junipero’s virtual reality? This part of the story is noticeably left unaddressed.”[3]

Brooker has said that although the episodes “exist in the same psychological universe. […] They are not explicitly in one universe; there’s not a connecting timeline, but they confusingly overlap at times.”[4] Anthology episode ‘Black Museum’ nods to the murky history of San Junipero’s development by neuro-research “med-tech” company TCKR. Referring to an early neurological implant,[5] the guide explains,

[Rolo:] “It’s how they wound up with the digital consciousness transference, what they call cookies today.”

[Nish:] “Uh, like when they upload old people to the cloud?”

[Rolo:] “Yeah, but this was way before that. We didn’t have that whole immersive VR environment shizzle back then.”[6]

Through focusing on what the show infers but leaves unaddressed, this paper will explore some speculative considerations raised by San Junipero as a virtual reality system. Included in this are its relation to retro-revisionist discourses, compulsory ability, as well as the ‘invisible’ infrastructures sustaining the system such as care-labour and data storage.

 

Retro-(re)visionary

The episode opens with Yorkie walking through the streets of San Junipero. Shop windows flicker with television images of Max Headroom, a fictional AI character popularised throughout the 80s. The inclusion of Headroom is a subtle nod to the shared mythos of near-future depictions of global corporate control over media and technology and their addicted citizens. Additionally, Headroom’s origin story is also one of uploaded consciousness.[7]

Written as a period episode, ‘San Junipero’ is predominantly set in 1987 when same-sex marriage was illegal. The storyline doesn’t simply yearn for a better yesterday, but actualises one. Although it may be unfair to critique a series such as Black Mirror for a lone period piece, it is symptomatic of a wider cultural sphere which struggles to break from the present–hence ‘black mirror’.[8] The series sustains an uncanny charge however, because of the technological and cultural specificity to its historical moment.

There is, however, a certain popular melancholia that resides in visions of better days. A liberal progressive vision plays out in the virtual reconfiguration of a more ‘just’ past, without actually or necessarily shifting the present, and that being celebrated, at the same time, as ‘progressive’. Disability studies scholar Jasbir Puar critiques this tendency via a popular viral video,

“How useful is it to imagine troubled gay youth might master their injury and turn blame and guilt into transgression, triumph, and all-American success? […] “retro-homo-reprofuturism,” [describes] “the projection of one’s own past self onto the youth of today in order to revise one’s own ordinary life into exceptional progress narrative,” functions to misread the impasse of the present as an inability to imagine the future.”[9]

Rather than projecting her past self onto the youth of today, Yorkie gets to literally live her youth in a more ‘progressive’ 1987. This retro-fitted social justice is her ecstatic honeymoon, papering over the social realities of queer struggle in that historical period. 1987 was the year activist group ACT UP was founded at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis.[10] Puar elaborates,

“During the U.S. AIDS crisis, the charge of ACT UP activists was “You are killing us!,” the “you” being the state, understood as responsible for addressing the crisis and providing care to its citizens (and noncitizens). The “you” is also the social and the political, the broader social and political contexts within which homosexual bodies could be sacrificed to such indifference and neglect.”[11]

San Junipero creates a willing anachronism, a shell of the era, which is the formal prefiguration of nostalgia therapy.[12] This investment in a psychological nostalgia precludes possibility in the present through withdrawal into the protocols of the non-melancholic virtual space. These sites are non-specific enough to enable expansive participation, leaving “the endemic social and political forces that continue to manifest homophobic hatred”[13] unaddressed. It “presumes the end, the aftermath of the AIDS crisis, rather than any homage to its ongoing deleterious effects or current situation.”[14]

The formal nostalgia here which allows a celebration of the present in its recycling of the familiar, updated by the present-future (the inclusion of gay marriage) in the present-past (1987). This diagnoses a contemporary era perforated with anachronism and inertia. In Ghosts of my Life, Mark Fisher criticises this tendency in which

“the 21st century is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion. It doesn’t feel like the future. Or, alternatively, it doesn’t feel as if the 21st century has started yet. We remain trapped in the 20th century”[15]

San Junipero is symptomatic of this, offered as a place in which the ‘not-yet’ futures that haunted the 80s are technologically sutured onto this reality, manifested in Kelly’s claim that “folks aren’t as uptight as they used to be.”[16]

Residents are interpellated into a state of limitlessness, as Kelly proclaims, “Let’s not limit ourselves!” Because of course, the only thing holding them back is themselves in this frictionless reality. In Puar’s framework, the “you” here is the individual, inserted into a progressive past which “capitalises on a neoliberal sentiment that detaches individual well-being from any collective, social responsibility.”[17] The way in which the technology facilitates this, echoes Fisher’s concern that,

“The disarticulation of class from race, gender and sexuality has in fact been central to the success of the neoliberal project – making it seem, grotesquely, as if neoliberalism were in some way a precondition of the gains made in anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-heterosexist struggles.”[18]

Especially because the period in which ‘San Junipero’ focuses was the beginning of the neoliberal era. Fisher writes that “the nostalgia mode subordinated technology to the task of refurbishing the old. The effect was to disguise the disappearance of the future as its opposite.”[19] This lends itself to comfortable familiarity of ‘San Junipero’, which perhaps partly mirrors the function of nostalgia therapies. It is this “feel-good” aspect that accounts for much of the episode’s popularity.

Articles attempting to timeline Black Mirror episodes typically comment on the futuristic ‘style’ of ‘San Junipero’.[20] Fisher remarks on this cultural phenomenon in which the ‘futuristic’

“has long since ceased to refer to any future that we expect to be different; it has become an established style, much like a particular typographical font.”[21]

Fisher says that as though,

“we were unable today to focus our own present, as though we had become incapable of achieving aesthetic representations of our own current experience.”[22]

However, part of Black Mirror’s success is its ability to address this anachronistic and obfuscating style of the present. ‘San Junipero’ achieves this in part through contrasting the nostalgic San Junipero with the near-future ‘present’ of the end-of-life facility. It is through this juxtaposition that a contemporary anxiety—finding ‘solutions’ for aging populations—is aesthetically represented.

 

Complex embodiment and compulsory able-bodiedness (the body and disabled futurity)

‘San Junipero’ explores the morality of choosing whether to “pass over” or not, however it is distinctly uncritical of the form this new embodiment takes. San Junipero has all the trappings of a neoliberal ‘good life’. Kelly entered seeking fun and quick fixes after a lifetime of yearning during heterosexual marriage and mourning her child’s untimely loss. She was there to remain a tourist, to sandbox with no commitment. For Yorkie on the other hand, the San Junipero system is revolutionary because it offers a new life, a life she could never have had otherwise, a life ‘pitied’ because of her disabled body. This reveals another darker aspect of the erasures and promises which the San Junipero system offers. Disability studies scholar Tobin Siebers writes that,

“The ideology of ability stands ready to attack any desire to know and to accept the disabled body in its current state. [T]o wish to return the body magically to a past era of supposed perfection, to insist that the body has no value as human variation if it is not flawless. […] We require the stuff of science fiction to describe these scenarios, […] But no recourse to fiction is required to imagine an able-bodied person becoming disabled.”[23]

Yorkie is a quadriplegic as a consequence of a car accident, following her ‘coming out’ to her religious family at the age of twenty-one. For forty years Yorkie has been in a hospital bed, unable to communicate recognisably. Siebers writes that,

“The future obeys an entirely different imperative, one that commands our triumph over death […] Cybernetics treats human intelligence as software that can be moved from machine to machine. It promises a future where human beings might be downloaded into new hardware whenever their old hardware wears out.”[24]

Black Mirror focuses significantly on the notion of the digitisation of consciousness, transferable from wetware to hardware. The series also idealises an idea of bodily form, a ‘man in the head’ which retains the bipedal human form (typically residing in some void space or control room) even as the consciousness may be transplanted into other material bodies.[25] However, if mind is an idea of the body, and the body an open set of possibilities,[26] why is there a persistence on the able-human shape and form? Even after the organism’s death, the simulation retains its bureaucratic organisation.

It is taken as a given that Yorkie will “pass over”. Siebers notes that in the ideology of ability, “[o]vercoming a disability is an event to be celebrated. It is an ability in itself to be able to overcome disability.”[27] The recourse to fiction here is necessary as a space which enables the imagining of a disabled person’s recapacitation, a simulation which exists within the horizons of the ideology of ability. Consequently, there is no body horror in the body’s recapacitation in the model of compulsory ability. When Yorkie “passes over”, no such horror is invoked. There is a contradiction at play here, where the body is simultaneously discarded yet perfected, ideology smoothing over incongruities in the experience of the body’s mutability.[28] Culturally, there is more horror to be found in the occupation of the disabled body.

For those who intend to help Yorkie “pass over”, pity is a defining factor. Initially introduced in the plot as Yorkie’s fiancé, Greg is revealed to be a nurse. Their marriage is shown to be in order to circumvent euthanasia laws. Yorkie comments, “I know he pities me. That pisses me off.”[29] Kelly instead proposes to marry her and sign off the paperwork, however afterwards, Yorkie asks Kelly to “pass over” against her wishes. Kelly defends herself, “No, I pitied you, and that’s the truth. I pitied you. Now you give me some sales pitch about how fucking peachy forever could be.”[30]

Kelly repeatedly refuses her vulnerability to Yorkie through differentiating herself, scorning her as ‘pitiable’. However they are both desiring the same ideal, to inhabit what Suely Rolnik describes as a “new élan for the idea of paradise developed by Judeo-Christian religions: the mirage of a smoothed-over, stable life under perfect control.”[31] Through attempting to refuse this fragility—“I didn’t want to like anyone. So you’ve been just… totally fucking inconvenient”[32]—shame is produced by the inability to control and contain. This opens onto compulsive processes of differentiation, refusing life as it is experienced.

This construction of disability as undesirable is problematic, portraying the difficulty in thinking beyond the conceptual horizon of able-bodiedness in order to attune to the specific sensibilities and discourses of living with disability. It is much easier to have a reactive body politic that deals with the immediate promise of ability than an active, engaged practice that deals with complexity. This allows for the shame attached to the disabled body, personalising oppression rather than recognising the external causes of such subjugation. Theses causes are not given in experience, they have to be constructed as a system of relations in a social-materialist structure.

Upon entering San Junipero, Yorkie’s anxiety supposedly represents her inexperience navigating the 80s environment as an able-bodied, queer white woman. The difficulty in dealing with an episode of science fiction rather than an account by a disabled person, is that Yorkie’s initial anxiety could be a lazy trope used by the writers in order to individually pathologize her experience,[33] or, her anxiety could be an affective resistance to the demand to be an able ‘flexible subject’. Disability studies scholar Robert McRuer describes the ‘flexible subject’ as someone who,

“can perform wholeness through each recurring crisis. Under neoliberalism, […] individuals who are indeed “flexible and innovative” make it through moments of subjective crisis. They manage the crisis, or at least show that they have management potential; ultimately, they adapt and perform as if the crisis had never happened. Attention must be drawn to the crisis in order for the resolution to be visible, but to draw too much attention to the subjective crisis, and to the fragmentation and multiplicity it effects, would be to perform—or act out—inflexibility. Past, present, and future are thus constantly reconsolidated to make it seem as if a subject or worker is exactly suited to each new role.”[34]

Yorkie’s anxiety, her ‘inflexibility’, as a tourist signals some resistance to the crisis of disembodiment. However she does of course adapt upon “passing over”. This transformation comes from moving, as McRuer describes, “away from disability to a picture-perfect (heterosexual, able-bodied) Hollywood ending.”[35] Updated to be a contemporary picture-perfect, pinkwashed, able-bodied, Hollywood ending (with “fucking awesome”[36] sex).

To rework McRuer’s phrasing; the San Junipero system offers to “fix” Yorkie (transform, improve), and in doing so “fixes” her (contains, stills, defines).[37] Rehabilitation here is ultimately a recourse to death, shadowing the negative view that “it is better to be dead than disabled”.[38] Yorkie must die in order to “pass over”, demanding adaptability, a disavowal of her past, as well as an embrace of a ‘new’ past discontinuous with her experience. She must become a flexible subject, which embraces the generated environment she now moves in. However, there is a certain rendering of form that forecloses certain possibilities.

Suely Rolnik outlines ways in which this may occur. She outlines two capacities in neuroscience, the first being the cortical capacity corresponding to perception, which allows us to apprehend the world in terms of forms upon which we project our available representations in order to give them meaning,

“This capacity, which is the most familiar to us, is associated with time, with the history of the subject and with language. […] The cortical capacity of the sensible is what allows us to preserve the map of reigning representations, so that we can move through a known scenario where things remain in their due places with a minimum of stability.”[39]

The second being the historically repressed subcortical capacity of the body, which apprehends impersonal forces and affects which become present in our bodies as sensations,

“The exercise of this capacity is disengaged from the history of the subject and of language. With it, the other is a living presence composed of a malleable multiplicity of forces that pulse in our sensible texture, thus becoming part of our very selves. Here the figures of subject and object dissolve, and with them, that which separates the body from the world.”[40]

Together, these allow the creation of a flexible subjectivity outlined by McRuer, initially instituted by twentieth century counter-cultures. It is arguably now the desired modality for contemporary subjectivity. Rolnik writes that this post-Fordist flexibility is guided by “an almost hypnotic identification with the images of the world broadcast by advertising and mass culture.”[41] So systems like San Junipero function in the following way,

“By offering ready-made territories to subjectivities rendered fragile by deterritorialization, these images tend to soothe their unrest, thus contributing to the deafness of their resonant body, and therefore to its invulnerability to the affects of the time that are presented within it. […] At stake here is the idea that there exist paradises, that these are now in this world and not beyond it, and above all, that certain people have the privilege of inhabiting them. […] such images transmit the illusion that we could be one of these VIPs, if we simply invested all our vital energy – our desire, affect, knowledge, intellect, eroticism, imagination, action, etc. – in order to actualize these virtual worlds of signs in our own existence, through the consumption of the objects and services they propose to us.”[42]

This is echoed in Kelly’s review in the opening nightclub scenes of ‘San Junipero’; “I mean look around. People try so hard to look how they think they should look. They probably saw it in some movie.”[43] Before acknowledging Yorkie’s difference in this situation, noting her glasses with the plastic lenses: “You’re authentically you.”[44]

It is through “our belief in this religious myth of neoliberalism, that the image-worlds produced by this regime turn into concrete reality in our own existence.”[45] These are investments in the promises of capital toward this terrestrial heaven. San Junipero is not a counterculture, it is the horizon of things to come, the refusal of vibrant life in the present towards “this fucking graveyard you’re so in love with.”[46]

Kelly disdains that which may shatter her ideal of the lifestyle unaffected by new others, trying to differentiate herself from the “full timers”, lest they destabilize her resolve. Kelly also attempts to resist the queer destabilization offered by Yorkie, withholding an attachment to her heterosexual life and commitments made in her previous life. An incompatibility occurs because

“despite the temporary visibility of disability and homosexuality […], the flexible corporate strategies that currently undergird contemporary economics, politics, and culture invariably produce a world in which disability and queerness are subordinated or eliminated outright.”[47]

McRuer continues,

“flexibility again works both ways: heterosexual, able-bodied characters in such texts work with queer and disabled minorities, flexibly contracting and expanding, while queer, disabled minorities flexibly comply.”[48]

This complex conflict plays out between Kelly and Yorkie, in which Kelly has a heterosexual privileging and familiarity with ability that allows her to nurture a certain disdain for Yorkie. Kelly is positively defined through her haves in contrast to the pitiable Yorkie who ‘lacks’ even in her attempts to perform both heterosexuality (see: ‘fiancé’ Greg) and ability. There is a tendency in which Yorkie’s queerness functions to support the heteronormativity around her, for example as the ‘friend’ deflecting Wes’ interest in Kelly. And though the episode concludes with a celebratory queering of this, their marriage simply replaces hetero for homo in the ‘saviour’ function of the male-carer-fiancé.[49]

However, Yorkie’s “sales pitch” demonstrates how embedded she is in this neoliberal myth of self-salvation through consumption – which both obscures and is obscured by the queer sociability that enabled her arrival there (such as the circumvention of family, non-reproductive relations and kinship).[50] Yorkie’s celebratory transformation, comes from a disavowal of both the collective and the body, toward individual salvation found in a consumer product which ultimately defers the experience of the lived reality of her happiness.

 

Invisible infrastructures

San Junipero appears to reintroduce the qualitative into the quantitative through its images of the, otherwise inaccessible, ‘good life’.[51] Part of its appeal is its contrast to how nursing homes are actually governed, which has been increasingly quantitative and target-based rather than qualitative.

The book Making Gray Gold by sociologist Timothy Diamond consists of research and fieldwork in U.S. nursing homes, mapping the tendency to treat care as a business throughout the 1980s.[52] Diamond writes,

“The ways cleanliness and nutrition are measured render comfort, taste, and texture accidental properties, irrelevant to the essential quantitative index. The leap from the everyday situations to their formal records involves a transformation into abstract measures.”[53]

In virtual reality, everything is a part of a quantitative index, even that which appears qualitative. What appears doesn’t necessarily refer to its “biophysical” counterpart in ways we would recognise. This is demonstrated when Kelly smokes a cigarette, commenting that it “doesn’t even taste of anything.”[54] Luciana Parisi explains that,

“[…] algorithms correspond to data objects that build actual instances of space and time that have volume, weight, gravity, depth, height, and density, and can thus be found in algorithmic architecture. […] these data objects are not simulations of some biophysical ground of the past or future. […] algorithms are not exclusively defined by the quality they can reproduce (color, sound, or variables), but also by the quantities of data that they operate. [Algorithms] are actual and thus spatiotemporally determined, conditioned and limited. But they are also abstract, and are thus capable of irreversibly determining change according to the degree to which they contaminate actualities.”[55]

San Junipero as a cultural representation of an algorithmically generated zone shows how, on the one hand, the algorithmic turn discounts or obscures human lived experience and its supportive labours, and on the other, how the computational is an actual entity which speculatively programmes the present beyond the biophysical. For the former, the erasure of peoples who care for the physical body (e.g. carers and nurses); the latter, to take from Gilles Deleuze’s text ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’,

“Individuals have become “dividuals,” and masses, samples, data, markets, or “banks.”[56]

This is made literal in the closing scenes, soundtracked by Belinda Carlisle’s ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’. The viewer sees Kelly euthanised and buried with her husband and daughter, to join Yorkie in San Junipero, where they drive into the sunset. Following this, the scenes are intercut between the huge TCKR data banks, each individual flickering deposit attended to by a robot, to the citizens of San Junipero dancing in the nightclub. Yorkie having discarded her “authentic” glasses.

The San Junipero system directly straddles three spaces; the care home (discipline), the data bank (control), and the virtual simulation (post-cybernetic control). The bureaucratic, and abstract, authority of the care home enforces rules and laws which are separate from everyday life, yet resident bodies are urged to adapt to the limited schedules of under-resourced care, to the detraction of quality and choice. Diamond writes,

“[…] residents were expressing specific desires while encased within a system of control that precluded them from satisfying their own needs. […] Amid intense and elaborate external control, for those who lived and worked there much of everyday life was out of control.”[57]

Algorithmic control is a development on the control at a distance outlined by Diamond and Deleuze. Instead of transforming lived experience and needs into abstract measures and subsequently developing rules from that which apply back onto the nursing home, Parisi explains that,

“[…] the cybernetic apparatus of control, […] employs a quasi-empirical mode of calculation, according to which the necessary emergence of the new (the uncertain) and its potential effects are precalculated and preempted before the fact. In other words, the effects of the unknown have become the causal motor by which control is unconditionally exercised and driven by immanent decisions about what has not yet happened. […] turning the potential effects of the future into operative procedures within the present.”[58]

From this we can understand that the San Junipero system is not necessarily a fixed set of rules. Instead, it calculates a set of potential negative effects in order to instantiate procedures within the present. For example, the pain sliders and the auto-repair of damage to the environment, this modulation is both part of an apparatus of control that tracks the potential activities of each ‘person’, but also this ‘soft thought’ as Parisi terms it,

“[…] pertains to the existence of modes of thought, decision making, and mentality that do not exist in direct relation to human thinking. [Maintaining] a certain degree of autonomy from cognition demonstrated by their logical inconsistencies.”[59]

Which disrupts a certain causal mode of thinking. For example, Kelly punching a mirror means that the mirror is broken, however on returning her gaze to the impacted area it is now (illogically) unharmed. However, if, as the new materialisms claim, “information systems are open and not closed, dynamic and evolutionary (with rules that change over time), and are thus not preprogramed”,[60] then the compulsory ability represented in the San Junipero system may shift as the system evolves, as Parisi explains,

“Computational aesthetics therefore is not about the idealism of form, or about a code unravelling the complexity of biophysical structures. Instead, […] algorithmic architecture explains computational aesthetics as the programming of actualities through the algorithmic selection of patternless data. For this reason, algorithmic architecture is another form of post-cybernetic control, because it relies on algorithms to prehend incomputable data in order to program culture.”[61]

The question again arises as to why a ‘limitless’ space such as San Junipero appears to be so influenced by the ideologies of ability. However, the disciplinary society (e.g. nursing home) has an optimal model of normal, whereas security apparatuses attempt to bring the unfavourable more in line with the favourable, creating a norm which is an interplay of differential normalities.[62] So in many ways the predictive selection of the ‘random’ elements by the algorithm plays into pre-existing cultural prejudices—something we see played out across many interactive public facing AIs[63]—as “the shift toward the use of interactive algorithms has led designers to rely on biophysical inputs.”[64] Here the random element becomes the biophysical input, which becomes a ‘cookie’ entering the dynamic system of San Junipero and so on. And although the system can protect from ‘physical harm’, it would be hard to empirically prove any connection to what we would understand as the choice to avoid physical harm as it would not necessarily mirror our own understandings of mor(t)ality.

The profit to be made from these simulations and ‘cookies’ offers a bleak vision for what Puar describes as “increasingly demanding neoliberal formulations of health, agency, and choice – […] a liberal eugenics of lifestyle programming”.[65] Because as these virtual figures are not human as such, they can function differently – in ‘Black Museum’, Rolo even scoffs at the development of ‘rights’ for these forms,

“[…] the UN made it illegal to transfer human consciousnesses into limited formats like this. Gotta be able to express at least five emotions for it to be humane, apparently. [chuckles] Human rights for cookies.[66]

In the context of ‘San Junipero’, Jasbir Puar’s comment that,

“Disability empowerment and pride are part of rights discourses even as expressions of maiming, debilitation, and disabling are central to economies and vocabularies of violence and exploitation.”[67]

Brings us to the pressing question of,

“Which bodies are made to pay for “progress”? Which debilitated bodies can be reinvigorated for neoliberalism, available and valuable enough for rehabilitation, and which cannot be?”[68]

Some examples of this speculative and exploitative profit-extraction are as follows; the potential for San Junipero to provide scenarios for the software in ‘Hang The DJ’, in which a hundred simulations of a potential couple are played out in order to find their match suitability percentage. Or the enslavement presented in the episode ‘White Christmas’, as the data copy or ‘cookie’ version of Greta (Oona Chaplin) becomes a living version of Amazon’s Alexa, in which the technician Matt (Jon Hamm) breaks her through temporal adjustments, making her experience six months of isolation in five minutes. Similarly, the use of external control is exercised in ‘USS Callister’ in which game developer Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons) creates digital clones from his co-workers’ DNA, punishing them for disobedience through manipulating their bodies; transforming the mouth into a smooth surface of skin thereby limiting the trained reaction to breathe, or mutation into a ‘monstrous’ non-human form. Daly also does not let them die, and offers the threat of further torture of CEO James’ (Jimmi Simpson) son whom he keeps threatening to “bring back” into Infinity, the simulated reality software that Daly created.

Each of these situation substitutes the individual for a copy to be exploited. The entry into medical technologies, alludes to Deleuze’s theorisations on the hospital system,

“[…] the new medicine “without doctor or patient” that singles out potential sick people and subjects at risk, which in no way attests to individuation – as they say – but substitutes for the individual or numerical body the code of a “dividual” material to be controlled.”[69]

The breaking down of people into dividual fragments—represented by the data bank or diagnosis charts—are “stories of control societies”.[70] Yet simultaneously the reliance on digital narratives,

“obscures the ongoingness of discipline and the brutal exercise of sovereign power, often cloaked in humanitarian, democratic, or life preservationist terms.”[71]

Although the conditions in San Junipero may be preferable to an end-of-life care facility, there is something suspicious about the potential usefulness for business and profit-extraction. It should be an option but not a prerogative. The obfuscation by technology of this function as something preferable, allows a false equivalency, as Kelly speaks to Greg about the rationing of the San Junipero system,

[Kelly:] “They ration it out. They don’t trust us with more.”

[Greg:] “They say you go crazy if you have too much, you know? You don’t leave your seat. You disassociate body from mind.”

[Kelly:] “Like that doesn’t happen in every senior home already. [laughs]”

And beyond this, the exploitative practices that lead to such technological advancement, where ‘care’ is simultaneously a recapatitation machine and an extractive process, adding new resonance to the motto,

“A Nursing Home Is a 24-Hour-a-Day, 365-Day-a-Year Business”[72]

As the organisation of these spaces is founded on specific relations of power, a universal modulation of those with access to and who are recuperable through the San Junipero system. The only apparent issue is whether you can pay for it, especially in its U.S. setting. The new adventures of generated youth, residents plunged into a world of nostalgia, to live out their own syrupy memoir.[73] No limits sounds enticing, to be free from restraints. Inhabiting paradise, or at least the hypnotic image of it, woven in and through popular vocabularies, the private liberal promises of a bourgeois lifestyle.

Virtual reality is a (para-)site of care, in which a parallelism is drawn between the site of care and this new site of embodiment. The relational aspect of care is circumvented through its automation. This ‘liberates’ the nurse from the emotional labour that is not taught in the formal training.[74] Instead, San Junipero residents take on the relational task. There is no emotional austerity in ‘San Junipero’. The only limit being the “triple-lockdown on euthanasia cases” that “stops people passing over just ’cause they prefer San Junipero flat out.”[75] This intense emotional engagement becomes a substitute for political action in the present.[76]

 

They say in heaven, love comes first \ We’ll make heaven a place on Earth

In her book Migrant Futures, Aimee Bahng asks, “How do our stories of the future chart the ways we invest – financially, politically, ideologically, and intellectually – in the present?”[77] As a series, Black Mirror begins to offer a popular cultural vocabulary for what is happening to us. ‘San Junipero’ was celebrated for being a ‘hopeful’ episode. It betrays, however, a popular liberal imaginary which does little to explore political empowerment or human diversity. To use Liat Ben-Moshe’s words, “The issue is that we still can’t account for ways of effectively living with disability. [But it] produces specific sensibilities and discourses.”[78] What is the future that doesn’t disavow lived life? In this world of foreclosed opportunities, or visions of opportunity that simply mirror the hegemonic, what kind of exuberances might restore texture to this world?

Critics may say the emotional range and journey of Yorkie and Kelly technically moves beyond the television trope of killing off queer characters.[79] That their sex, sun and sea ending is a celebratory form of queer exuberance. However this image is stabilised through the limited ideological horizons of ability, homo-/hetero-normativity, consumer therapies and other privatised relations. These ideological horizons ‘empathetically’ modulate vulnerability, dividuating our capacities into skimmed profits. The real revolution will be through resingularisation. But until we understand ourselves as residents not tourists, we will continue a neoliberal politic of differentiation; individualising and memorialising with élan our smooth virtual perfection—networked stasis—in the face of actually-existing death, violence and scarcity.

Continue reading “Blueprints for recapacitation: critiquing virtual reality as a (para-)site of care through an analysis of ‘San Junipero’ (2016)”