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.

 

Notes

[1] ‘San Junipero’, Black Mirror, S3E4 (Netflix, 2016).

[2] Style note, the episode will be put in quotations as ‘San Junipero’, and the system will be italicised.

[3] Bryant W. Sculos, ‘Screen Savior: How Black Mirror Reflects the Present More than the Future’, Class, Race and Corporate Power, 5(1), https://digitalcommons.fiu.edu/classracecorporatepower/vol5/iss1/4.

[4] Patricia Garcia, ‘Black Mirror Creator Charlie Brooker on What Really Happened at the End of “San Junipero”’, Vogue, October 27, 2016, accessed December 11, 2018, https://www.vogue.com/article/black-mirror-creator-charlie-brooker-san-junipero.

For example, in the series, the San Junipero system is potentially named after the Saint Juniper’s hospital in which neuro-research “med-tech” company TCKR experimented with consciousness transference in the ‘Black Museum’ episode.

[5] ‘Black Museum’, Black Mirror, S4E6 (Netflix, 2017). Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodge) tells the story of Dr Peter Dawson, which writer Charlie Brooker based on the short story The Pain Addict by Penn Jillette. Dawson had a neurological implant that allowed him to feel the physical sensations of his patients, in order to treat them, but subsequently began experiencing pain as pleasure.

[6] ‘Black Museum’. There is also a vocabulary choice that could be analysed, in the use of the word “cookie” to refer to digital consciousness. Cookies are typically used in internet browsers by websites to trace your browsing history and to create a trackable profile, stored on your computer.

[7] That of the Network 23 reporter Carter, investigating a form of subliminal advertising (‘blipverts’) that can kill.

“While tracking the story, Carter is flung into a barrier marked “Max. Headroom — 2.3m.” Desperate to maintain ratings with its star reporter, the network enlists a young hacker to download Carter’s mind and create a virtual version of the journalist. But things don’t go quite right. The result: the stuttering, sarcastic Max.” Bryan Bishop, ‘The Definitive Oral History of 1980s Digital Icon Max Headroom’, The Verge, May 2, 2015, accessed December 9, 2018, https://www.theverge.com/2015/4/2/8285139/max-headroom-oral-history-80s-cyberpunk-interview.

Eerily, Channel 4 (Black Mirror’s former network) resurrected Max Headroom, placing him in a care home for an advertisement raising awareness for the digital switchover in 2007, see: ‘Max Headroom in an old-folks home’ (YouTube video, published by ‘Lord Volvo’, 1:09, March 26, 2010, accessed December 9, 2018), https://youtu.be/X18e113BRKE.

[8] The title of the series refers to the ‘black mirror’ of the contemporary digital screens that surround us.

[9] Jasbir K. Puar, Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2017), 7.

[10] I include this because I believe it important to centre the easily erased history of the AIDS epidemic. ‘A Timeline of HIV and AIDS’, HIV.gov, accessed December 9, 2018, https://www.hiv.gov/hiv-basics/overview/history/hiv-and-aids-timeline.

[11] Puar, Right to Maim, 7.

[12] This text does not directly deal with the role of nostalgia therapy, instead I am focusing on the episode as a text in its own right and the cultural and systemic implications of such a representation.

[13] Puar, Right to Maim, 7.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Mark Fisher, Ghosts Of My Life (Winchester: Zero Books, 2014).

[16] ‘San Junipero’.

[17] Puar, Right to Maim, 7.

[18] Fisher, Ghosts Of My Life.

[19] Ibid.

[20] See: E. Oliver Whitney, ‘24 Easter Eggs From All Three Seasons Of ‘Black Mirror,’ Plus A Timeline Connecting Every Episode’, ScreenCrush, October 26, 2016, accessed December 11, 2018, http://screencrush.com/black-mirror-easter-eggs-theory/

[21] Fisher, Ghosts Of My Life.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Tobin Siebers, Disability Theory (USA: The University of Michigan Press, 2008), 26.

[24] Ibid., 7-8.

[25] For example in the episode ‘Black Museum’, where the “cookie” version of Carrie is transferred into a stuffed monkey, she is depicted as sitting in a chair, or a control room, in the ‘space’ of the brain. Julian Jaynes in his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Break-Down of the Bicameral Mind critiques the early schools of psychology that have embedded themselves in culture and language, saying “That error was, and still is, that consciousness is an actual space inhabited by elements called sensations and ideas.” (8) and that when asked where consciousness is located, “Everyone, or almost everyone, immediately replies, in my head. This is because when we introspect, we seem to look inward on an inner space somewhere behind our eyes. But what on earth do we mean by ‘look’? We even close our eyes sometimes to introspect even more clearly. Upon what? Its spatial character seems unquestionable. […] We not only locate this space of consciousness inside our own heads. We also assume it is there in others’.” (44-45). Jaynes concludes, “In reality, consciousness has no location whatever except as we imagine it has.” (46). But I think there is something particular to this vision of the bureaucratic brain that is established via the SF trope of the control room, occupied by a human form which ‘occupies’ this space. See: Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Break-Down of the Bicameral Mind (New York: Mariner Books, 2000).

[26] Mark Fisher, Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction (PhD thesis, University of Warwick, 2000), 22.

[27] Siebers, Disability Theory, 10.

[28] Ibid., 8.

[29] ‘San Junipero’.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Suely Rolnik, ‘The Geopolitics of Pimping’, eipcip, 11 (2006), accessed March 30, 2018, http://eipcp.net/transversal/1106/rolnik/en.

[32] ‘San Junipero’.

[33] Siebers cites another ableist assumption this may be influenced by, that “loss of ability translates into loss of sociability.” Siebers, Disability Theory, 10.

[34] Robert McRuer, Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (New York and London: New York University Press, 2006), 17.

[35] Ibid., 25.

[36] ‘San Junipero’.

[37] McRuer, Crip Theory, 22.

[38] Siebers, Disability Theory, 10.

[39] Rolnik, ‘The Geopolitics of Pimping’.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] ‘San Junipero’. For a critique of early online identity-tourism influenced by filmic representations and racial stereotypes, see: Lisa Nakamura, ‘Race In/For Cyberspace: Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on the Internet’, 2005, accessed December 11, 2018, http://faculty.humanities.uci.edu/poster/syllabi/readings/nakamura.html.

[44] ‘San Junipero’. The purchasable personality through accessories, often exploited in contemporary workplaces. I am reminded of a passage in Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, analysing Mike Judge’s Office Space, “Here, staff are required to decorate their uniforms with ‘seven pieces of flair’, (i.e. badges or other personal tokens) to express their ‘individuality and creativity’: a handy illustration of the way in which ‘creativity’ and ‘self-expression’ have become intrinsic to labor in Control societies […] The flair example also points to another phenomenon: hidden expectations behind official standards.” Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism (Winchester: Zero Books, 2009).

[45] Rolnik, ‘The Geopolitics of Pimping’.

[46] ‘San Junipero’.

[47] McRuer, Crip Theory, 28-29.

[48] Ibid., 18.

[49] A queer anti-sociality would be “the appropriately perverse refusal that characterizes queer theory.” (Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2004), 4). This is a potential through Kelly’s eventual refusal of her ties to her husband and daughter, shrugging it off to live in a Sapphic paradise with Yorkie – which has been a sizeable amount of the celebration of ‘San Junipero’ has been this refusal leading to eternal happiness. However, I argue that this action simply is a compulsion to salvation through neoliberal myths of independence, and that this refusal of heteronormativity is not necessarily a refusal of the power of capital within a larger heterosexist system. Always worth noting that the ‘San Junipero’ script was initially written for a heterosexual couple, which accounts for some of the more homonormative aspects of the plot in which the ‘othered’ spaces such as the BDSM sex club, The Quagmire, are found to be aberrant.

[50] Echoing the previous footnote, Puar writes that, “The move from aids as death to homosexual life also mirrors moves from sex and public sexuality to kinship and its privatized familial forms and from the state as the site of redress to the market as the site of the actualization and realization of the queer self. Queer failure is braided into this story of success.” (Puar, Right to Maim, 7) This functions to enact a certain privatisation.

[51] See: Lauren Berlant, Gesa Helms, and Marina Vishmidt, ‘Affect & the Politics of Austerity: An interview exchange with Lauren Berlant’, Variant, issue 39/40, Winter 2010, accessed April 5, 2018, http://www.variant.org.uk/39_40texts/berlant39_40.html.

[52] The NHS in the UK is has been increasingly subjected to a target-economy which detracts from the qualitative and social aspect of these areas of health care.

[53] Timothy Diamond, Making Gray Gold: Narratives of Nursing Home Care (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1992), 180.

[54] ‘San Junipero’.

[55] Luciana Parisi, Contagious Architecture: Computation, Aesthetics, and Space (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2013), 6.

[56] Gilles Deleuze, ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’, October, Vol.59 (Winter, 1992): 5.

[57] Diamond, Making Gray Gold, 179.

[58] Parisi, Contagious Architecture, xvi.

[59] Ibid., xviii.

[60] Ibid., 2.

[61] Ibid., 10.

[62] Ibid., 22.

[63] The Microsoft AI twitterbot Tay famously fell victim to this. See: James Vincent, ‘Twitter taught Microsoft’s AI chatbot to be a racist asshole in less than a day’, The Verge, March 24, 2016, accessed December 9, 2018, https://www.theverge.com/2016/3/24/11297050/tay-microsoft-chatbot-racist.

[64] Parisi, Contagious Architecture, 7.

[65] Ibid., 13.

[66] ‘Black Museum’. My emphasis.

[67] Puar, Right to Maim, xi.

[68] Ibid., 13.

[69] Deleuze, ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’, 7.

[70] Puar, Right to Maim, xx.

[71] Ibid., xxi.

[72] Diamond, Making Gray Gold, 172.

[73] For a pollical commentary on the issues with liberal nostalgia, this piece clearly outlines the issues we can take with this positioning. See: Ash Sarkar, ‘Why Michelle Obama’s vapid liberalism is a dead end for the left’, New Statesman, November 28, 2018, accessed December 9, 2018, https://www.newstatesman.com/world/2018/11/why-michelle-obama-s-vapid-liberalism-dead-end-left.

[74]  Diamond writing on the training of nursing assistants echoes the issues at hand, “[W]ithin the formal training there was no language of caregiving beyond the biological. There were no concepts taught or debated relating to caregiving as a social and emotional encounter. […] The formal knowledge became privatized, to be purchased for tuition, while conceived and judged by medical, corporate, and state administrators. […] taught and sold to the students as its whole.” Diamond, Making Gray Gold, 185.

[75] ‘San Junipero’.

[76] Lisa Nakamura touched upon the empathetic possibilities of VR, through which an intense emotional experience is mistaken for actually taking action. See: Lisa Nakamura, ‘Automating Racial Empathy: Virtual Reality and the Undercommons’ (lecture delivered at WHAP!, West Hollywood Public Library, Los Angeles, USA, November 30, 2018).

[77] Aimee Bahng, Migrant Futures: Decolonizing Speculation in Financial Times (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2018), 3.

[78] Liat Ben-Moshe, ‘Weaponizing Disability’, Social Text, October 28, 2018, accessed November 6, 2018, https://socialtextjournal.org/periscope_article/weaponizing-disability/.

[79] Morgan Baila, ‘Queer Women Love This Black Mirror Episode & For Good Reason’, Refinery29, November 7, 2016, accessed December 9, 2018, https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2016/11/128935/black-mirror-san-junipero-queer-women-reaction.

 

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