Throughout its first four seasons Black Mirror, the science fiction series that features technology-driven dystopian futures, has largely managed to avoid the 1980s nostalgia trap. Black Mirror’s critique of science, technology and capitalism has been sharp and disquieting in welcome ways.
My favorite episodes from the first three seasons are “5 Million Credits”, “Nosedive” and “Hated in the Nation”. Although Netflix got involved in season four, the series still managed “Black Museum” and “U.S.S. Callister”, continuing a tradition of entertaining and socially conscious science fiction.
Now comes Bandersnatch.
Rather than fidelity to the social-science fiction of Issac Asimov, William Gibson, Ursula K. LeGuinn, or even Samuel Beckett (check out Lost Ones) Black Mirror, perhaps in keeping with the global civilizing mission of its adoptive parent, Netflix, has plunged down the 1980s memory hole. We will have to see if it can find its way out.
Which raises a couple questions:
What is it about the 1980s that has captured the imagination of corporate popular culture? What are the reactionary nostalgists nostalgic for?
Allow me to hazard some answers.
What is celebrated here is the golden era of the Cold War, where, as the story goes, capitalism, and to a lesser extent, democracy, finally triumphed over communism, and to a lesser extent, totalitarianism. Reagan said “tear down that wall!” and the wall came down. Every rose colored look back includes that scene in its rear view mirror, with a Hollywood sunset ahead.
This triumph of the anticommunist ‘democratic’ consensus claimed to have ushered in ‘the end of history’. No more class struggle, no more engine of history that didn’t run on wage labor, private property and free markets. Progress may be slow, we were told, but it was persistent, always bending towards justice. But history didn’t end, only ‘the end of history’ came to an end–in the killing fields of the Balkans, Rwanda and Iraq.
This is the ‘progress’ Walter Benjamin warned us about.
So here we are, in 2019, and one can smell fascism wafting through the malls, class struggle back on the streets, meaninglessness growing as a malignant tumor on the body politic. What went wrong?
How to fit this square peg into that round hole?
Efface, or reframe it.
The consolidation of political reaction, economic austerity and social backlash came about in the final defeat of the 1960s-70s global wave of upheavals. You know, what came before the 1980s. Buried within this nostalgia is a tacit celebration of reaction, or at least a begrudging acceptance of it.
For corporate interests and many liberals and reactionaries alike, the 1980s also represents the end of socialism, by which is meant class struggle, the true motor of history. The launch of the digital frontier coincided in the popular imagination with that ‘end of history’. They are linked.
But something sinister stalks the anti communist consensus and the tech revolution to which it is yoked.
Nostalgia always involves sentimental longing, often for something that never was. This longing for a mythical past has been described as a key feature of fascist ideology. It is, but it is not the only feature, although it shares this in common with neoliberalism.
What this nostalgia doesn’t efface, it reframes and co-opts. Note that the current wave of 1980s nostalgia does not (usually) include a revalorization of gay bashing, women in the kitchen or Black people at the back of the bus. It presents itself as inclusive of hard fought and won social and economic rights, but claims these victories for itself, then repackages them for sale to the highest bidder, thereby undermining the foundation for those gains. What is most important is that the narrative of how those rights were won be safely ensconced within the embrace of this nostalgia. Slowly, incrementally, while enjoying Kenny Loggins, Michael Jackson or Van Halen.
‘Everything’s gonna be alright’.
The return to the 1980s frequently presents these victories as having come about as a result of anticommunism, austerity, and extreme increases in corporate power, and not despite of or in opposition to them. It’s a difficult argument to make with a straight face, but plenty of people do it. The most persuasive arguments for such nonsense are those that have their roots in a playful naïveté leavened with a healthy dose of cynicism, preferably with very high production values.
Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One is a gleeful expression of this tendency. Bandersnatch plays the same tune, but in a different key.
Whereas Ready Player One employs a traditional action/adventure narrative structure, Bandersnatch is configured to scramble any narrative structure. Although they are dissimilar in this respect, they are united in their reactionary nostalgia.
The first element of attraction here is an effort to rediscover that magical moment when the twin totalitarianisms of fascism and communism gave way to capitalism and democracy. Or so the story goes. But capitalism and democracy are fundamentally incompatible, their clash engendering the eternal return of various strategies for an exit.
The second concept celebrated here is the birth (in a garage, rather than a manger) of a nascent cottage industry of personal computers. A bunch of sexually maladjusted teenage nerds fondling diodes and manipulating bits innovated again and again until voila! the personal computer was liberated from IBM, then plundered for profit by Microsoft and Apple.
Whatever trace amounts of creativity and public good remain from those garages was long ago gobbled up by metastasizing corporate power.
For Ready Player One this retreat from the public sphere into the garage is glamorized in the opening moments of the film, when the protagonist says, “he showed us we could go somewhere without going anywhere at all.” This is the perfect theme for a political philosophy that cannot acknowledge even the existence of a shared material reality, much less the gross inequality of that reality.
The first unforgivable sin of Bandersnatch is in its very conception and, predictably, its production costs. Because this movie/app involves multiple story lines, it takes hours to exhaust all the possible ‘endings’, so instead of four discrete science fiction pieces, we get ‘four in one’. “Look how much money we saved on actors and locations!” someone surely noted.
But the end result is a second sin: Bandersnatch takes on more than it can chew and succumbs to that dreaded art form, pastiche. Who in their right mind thought to combine the worst elements of an ‘on demand app’ such as Uber Driver or Deliv with a science fiction tradition that skewers such naked digital aggression? If that’s Bandersnatch’s snarky point, it’s well taken because I didn’t bother to finish it. Mission accomplished.
Here are three concepts useful in unpacking the reactionary philosophy at the heart of Ready Player One and Bandersnatch and for understanding my seething hatred of them both.
Commodity fetishism is a concept with deep roots in Marxist economics. It borrows from religion and anthropology to examine capitalist production. All capitalist production involves exploitation and domination. The processes and relations that are a part of producing the things we need and desire, and the inequality that ensues, must be hidden, the whole process represented as good, just and eternal. Where commodities come from, how they come to be, and what relations are involved with their production must be obscured or reframed, if they are even acknowledged. Why? Because the truth of the matter is a horror show.
In Ready Player One, as with seemingly all video games, keys and coins are fetishized. A commodity is represented as having magical properties in much the same way a talisman does for a priest.
The relationship between the Bit and capitalism is perfectly represented by keys and coins. One must develop skills (coding, for instance) in order to obtain and use keys; the keys unlock chests of coins, used to purchase more keys (skills) so as to unlock…and so on. Nowhere in this film is there even a glimpse of the material reality that underlies its world; only that sometime in the future there will still be trailor parks and Pizza Huts.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the scenario that takes place in a digital recreation of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. This craven homage is, to me, sacrilegious. But I aggress.
The second concept is possessive individualism. Here’s C.B. MacPherson, who coined the term, on what it means: “in which an individual is conceived as the sole proprietor of his or her skills and owes nothing to society for them.” The highest expression of possessive individualism today is the celebrity tech millionaire, worshipped for their genius. Originally, as with the case of Thomas Edison, genius was represented by the ‘invention’. Today we call this ‘innovation’, the difference in terms reflects a deeper transformation of things (inventions) into processes and relations (innovations) controlled by Bit logic. The power of the tech lord is not found in a thing so much as the ruthless cunning necessary to instrumentalize all those hidden relations of production that produce corporate profits. If tech titans wield a talisman, it is the Bit. This is what networking power is really about. Because corporations are inherently dictatorial, the celebrity tech titan is a prime source of authoritarianism. We know this, intuitively, and it causes anxiety. That anxiety, however, is neurotic: it loathes and loves the dictator. This is why there are usually good and bad corporate dictators, as in Ready Player One, from which one must choose. There is no alternative to this binary–one must choose one or the other. Both choices are bad.
The last concept, repressive desublimation, occurs when in order to satiate our thirst for change, we increasingly purchase or fund our rebellion, becoming thirstier.
Repressive desublimation can be broken down into its constituent components. Attributed to Herbert Marcuse, of the Frankfurt School, it borrows from psychology. Repressed, as in a desire that cannot be fulfilled, the deferment of which functions as both a defense mechanism and the source of pathology. When we say something is repressed, we usually assume it will bite back with a vengeance sometime later. The longer the repression, the harsher the bite back later on. But it is also a coping mechanism, where one learns to tolerate and accept intolerable and unacceptable things and get over it.
Desublimation occurs when a desire, say for sexual expression, is desublimated through, for instance the beauty myth. Sexual fulfillment can only be found through the sexual marketplace where strict adherence to a beauty regime and the wages of patriarchy are required. Each desire deferred is transmuted into a new desire, and so on. Desublimation occurs when the unfulfilled desire snaps back, without a mediating state, to a state which now contains within it both the original desire and the experience of its repression, thought to be its fulfillment. The snap back is not gradual, but immediate and harsh as when the purchase of a Land Rover is criticized as outdated, or your haircut is ugly.
As a thermodynamic process, desublimation is when a substance (here, steam) is transformed back to its original state (ice), reversing its sublimation from ice to steam.
This is the soul crushing cycle of consumer capitalism, where needs and desires are manufactured as much or more so than goods and services, through advertising. Workers are enlisted as consumers in administering their own poison. This is the essence of repressive desublimation, which is what framing Van Halen as rebellion is all about.
The Bildungsroman coming of age adventure story featured in both Ready Player One and Bandersnatch allows for celebrity worship, but of the right celebrity. This always features a poor, Horacio Alger type, preferably abused by a working class family that fails to appreciate his (it always is a boy-man) genius.
Here capitulation to pop culture is rendered (fat boiled off down to the bone) as resistance, even revolution.
But it is neither.
The only exercise of free will here is that of the corporation, a legally defined citizen with all the rights of a citizen, but none of the responsibilities. The only responsibilities a corporation has are those of a fiduciary nature, to shareholder value.
Perhaps this is one of the points the creators of Bandersnatch seek to make. But it’s difficult to extract that from an experience as loathsome as that of watching/playing Bandersnatch. Many of us are forced to endure such indignities on a daily basis and prefer that our intelligent science fiction be free of such cruelties.
The film Almost Mercy, by Tom Denucci is a flawed, but welcome antidote to this reactionary nostalgia. Almost Mercy is violent, gory and gruesome, yet surprises with deadpan humor and even manages tenderness and melancholy. The plot contains an initially disorienting look back to the bigotries of early American Christian fundamentalism. That disorientation later reveals itself as deeper character development and thematic exposition. The narration by the protagonist, an emerging militant feminist, is caustic and unsparing, but funny as hell.
There are problems, however, such as the well sprung role reversal near the end. If you watch closely, that role reversal is given away a bit too early. There are also several scenes with anachronisms, such as selfies with IPhones, not invented until 2007.
The casting of two icons of 1980s slasher horror films is brilliant, as they satirize themselves. The soundscape and soundtrack obliterate so much 1980-90s commercial pop music through thoughtful and searing vignettes, which owe more to that time period’s alternative rock.
Set in ‘South Greenwich, Rhode Island’ the social context for Almost Mercy is rooted in Northeastern American deindustrialization. The town used to have industry, but now downwardly mobile whites pursue “champagne lifestyles on gingerale budgets”, caught up in the familiar scourges of easy credit and indebtedness, addiction, meaninglessness and the disposable family. As if that weren’t enough, every possible institutional representative relied upon to protect the young protagonist, fails: parents, teachers, law enforcement, pastors, social workers, psychiatrists, peers, the media, etc. Each, in turn, is skewered in scenes of deep pathos and sarcasm, creating the conditions within which drastic means of redress become the only option.
It’s a brilliant film, but needs editing.
The exit strategy for Ready Player One is the full embrace of the simulacrum; of Bandersnatch, that there are endless iterations of an exit; and of Almost Mercy, vengeance–kill your oppressors.
A socialist future is nowhere considered here, but there is little doubt that it cannot be constructed from the lessons of the first two; only, problematically, if at all, from the last.