Black Mirror and Posthumanism: What is Humanity?
Published as the leading piece in Underground Journal in 2019.
The journal opens with Katherine Palmer’s work “Black Mirror and Posthumanism: What is Humanity?”, which explores the question of what is truly human in an era filled with technology by analyzing how a popular television show portrays humanity.– “Letter from the Editor” by Josephine Brown ’19 in Underground Journal
Netflix’s original Black Mirror is a British show directed by John Hillcoat in which each episode is a standalone, but each episode is linked to a common thread: the fear of the negative consequences on humanity due to technological advancement. But what is humanity? The show Black Mirror blends aspects of the genres of horror, cyberpunk, science fiction, and dystopia to make the viewer wonder what it means to be human, offering us viewers a posthumanist perspective. Through its portrayal of posthumanism, Black Mirror encourages viewers to rethink the way we perceive humanity and the world around us.
Posthumanism is a direct and contradictory response to the philosophical school of thought stemming from the Enlightenment: humanism. Humanism and posthumanism are Western thought, so these ideas might not apply to other societies around the world. According to Schmeink in “Dystopia, Science Fiction, Posthumanism, and Liquid Modernity,” humanism is the belief that “there is a unique an absolute difference that sets humans apart” from the rest of the natural world (30). The Enlightenment and the spark of humanism is when John Locke’s ideas of natural, inalienable human rights started to become accepted.
This conversation about human rights led to the consideration of what makes defines humanity. In “Posthumanism: A Critical History,” Miah explains, “an initial attempt to define what is uniquely valuable about being human is found in discussions about dignity and rights, which in turn gives rise to discussions about humanness and personhood” (14). Miah explains that posthumanism involves “coming to terms with how the Enlightenment centering of humanity has been revealed as inadequate” (2). Posthumanists realize that the concept of humanity has been constructed by humanity itself, which has led to extreme environmental degradation.
Rethinking this centering of humanity and considering the interconnectedness of the nature and humanity could be the answer to our environmental issues, as Hamilton points out in writing about climate change. In “Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change,” Hamilton writes, “We came to believe we could keep Nature at arms-length, but have now discovered, through the exertions of climate science, that Nature is always too close for comfort” (15). Hamilton explains how climate denial is a “last-ditch attempt to re-impose the Enlightenment’s allocation of humans and Nature to two distinct realms” (15). Therefore, Black Mirror’s posthumanist perspective may be just what the world needs to face the reality of environmental degradation.
A central aspect to posthumanism is questioning what will be to come of the world after humans; hence the name, “post” humanity. Schmeink writes that since human history can be erased, there will be a time after humans (29). Therefore, themes of overpowering or intrusive technology often coincide with questions concerning environmental degradation, which could cause the end of humanity.
An example of this is Season 3, Episode 6: “Hated in the Nation.” In this episode, the extinction of bees—a real and urgent threat today—leads to society replacing the bees with electronic bees that pollinate the plants. This episode is dystopian: with no bees to pollinate the plants, humans would die. In the episode, a hacker gets control of the electronic bees, so the bees start targeting humans. The hacker encourages people on social media to vote on whom the bees should target and kill that day. This episode is posthumanist in several ways: it portrays a degraded environment which technology has failed to save, suggesting a time after humans, and it challenges our perception of nature and what is real.
The episode “Hated in the Nation” illustrates many examples of how Black Mirror threads aspects of horror, cyberpunk, science fiction, and dystopia. For example, in “Hated in the Nation,” the society portrayed is very similar to our own, all except for the electronic bees. Similarly, the bees look and sound almost exactly like normal bees. By portraying society and the bees in “Hated in the Nation” as different, but horrifyingly recognizable, Black Mirror is employing the device of the uncanny, a central aspect in the genre of horror.
According to Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, “what is ‘uncanny’ is frightening precisely because it is notknown and familiar” (76). Freud continues, “the ‘uncanny’ is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar” (76). According to Creed in The Monstrous Feminine, cyborg bodies fall into the category of the uncanny (59). In “Hated in the Nation,” the cyborg bodies are the bees. In Culture & Technology, Murphie and Potts explain that the cyborg represents the boundary between nature and culture breaking down (116). This is another way in which Black Mirror practices aspects of traditional horror: by constantly blurring or crossing boundaries.
This is related to the Kristeva’s theory of abjecton; Creed explains, “that which crosses or threatens to cross the ‘border’ is abject” (11). Cyborg bodies are therefore abject, but black mirror also portrays abjection in “Hated in the Nation” because the bees dive into their victims’ ears, crossing the ultimate boundary between self and other, the skin.
What is Human?
Schmeink explains the historical context behind society’s fascination with cyborgs: “Robotics and computer science had progressed immensely and the cyborg became the central metaphor to understand social and cultural reality as a construction of multiple identities, a metaphor truly made for the late twentieth century imagination” (21). Cyborgs represent an “other” from humanity, which in turn helps us define humanity.
In Posthumanism: A Critical Analysis, Herbretcher explains, “Our understanding of technology forces us to ask the question ‘What is man?’ at a metaphysical-ontological level-a level that even the negation or the apparent surpassing of the question is unable to achieve” (15). Similarly, Miah explains, “These stories of automata, cyborgs, and robots all pose the same question: how do humans differ from non-humans, or more simply, what does it mean to be human?” (12). Black Mirror consistently uses technologies including cyborgs to make the audience question what a human is.
Ethics and Morals
Cyborgs are important in the realm of posthumanism. By questioning humanity through technology and by often portraying technology negatively, Black Mirror is reflecting the tendency in science fictions to assume “an increasingly influential cultural position, due to its long-standing ethical probing of the social consequences of new technologies” (Murphie 95). Furthermore, Murphie and Potts explain in Culture & Technology, “the cyborg operates as an ambiguous metaphor for our increasing dependence on technology” (110). Therefore, by portraying cyborg bodies in many episodes, Black Mirror is simultaneously making us rethink humanity and nature while also critiquing society’s reliance on technology.
There are many examples of Black Mirror questioning humanity through the use of cyborg bodies. An example of an episode that portrays cyborg bodies to question humanity is “The Entire History of You,” which threatens viewers’ senses of self. This relates to posthumanism, because by making viewers question what it means to be human, Black Mirror is essentially challenging our perception of reality: in this case, our perception of humanity.
The rejection of the cultural construct of humanity is very posthumanist; Schmeink explains that posthumanists believe “the human as a category is a fleeting and historically specific concept” (29). Posthumanists recognize that humanity has defined itself, and posthumanists have learned to reject the notion that humans have created, which is that humans are unique and special just because they are human. In Culture and Technology, Murphie and Potts explain that similarly to humanity as a societal construct, the sense of self is a “cultural construct, historically determined and susceptible to changing social conditions” (160). By questioning our senses of self in “The Entire History of You” through the portrayal cyborg bodies, Black Mirror illustrates a posthumanist perspective.
“The Entire History of You” directly threatens the characters’ bodies, minds, and their senses of self. This episode exemplifies a dystopian society in which almost every character has a cyborg body, due to the “grains,” which are technological devices in their brains. The grains allow the characters to record everything they see and hear, and the characters can replay memories in their individual eye or they can play it on a projector for everyone to see.
“The Entire History of You” directly threatens our sense of self; Colleen says, “Half the organic memories you have are junk. Just not trustworthy” (13:44). Memories are directly related to our senses of self, because we would not be who we are without our memories. This quote from Colleen suggests that our senses of self are not reliable and constructed from false memories.
Black Mirror criticizes our sense of self in today’s society that is greatly intertwined with technology: as Murphie and Potts explain, “artificial memories,” or memories of technology such as movies, saturate our memories (159). Possibly due to the number of selves presented on television, “individuals increasingly feel ‘lost’ in an advanced technological society” (160). Furthermore, in The Monstrous Feminine, Creed explains that identity is a constructed illusion, “always in danger of regression” (29). “The Entire History of You” is posthumanist because it questions and threatens the viewer’s constructed identity.
“The Entire History of You” crosses boundaries because a piece of technology lives in the characters’ brains, making them cyborgs, crossing the machine and human boundary. This is similar to Season 2, Episode 1: “Be Right Back.” In this episode, Martha’s husband, Ash, dies in a car crash. As Martha grieves, her friend suggests to her a service that would use all of Ash’s social media accounts to formulate his personality. The episode begins with Martha simply messaging the fake Ash, but then she sends the service videos of him to formulate his voice, and they start talking on the phone. The fake Ash then suggests taking it all a step further by ordering him a technological body that will feel real and look just like the real Ash.
However, while it does look exactly like Ash, Martha is repeatedly uneasy by how obvious it is that Ash is not a human: he does not breathe, eat, use the bathroom, and he can turn his penis on and off with just a thought. In Ash’s body we see the lack of boundaries that usually excrete the abject as well as the lack of boundary between human and machine. The fake Ash is nothing like the real Ash: he is much better at having sex, he can look up anything on the web at any moment in his mind, and he does not know anything that Ash did not put on social media.
Eventually, Martha does not even enjoy having sex with him, and she encourages Ash to not look up anything in his brain ever. She does not enjoy these differences from the real Ash, but most of all, Martha is frustrated when the fake Ash’s personality is not enough like the real Ash’s. She exclaims, “You’re just a performance of stuff that he performed without thinking” (45:20). Clearly, this episode portrays Black Mirror’s longing for the body and the critique on the thought that a soul could exist without a body. The cyborg Ash ends up being locked up in Martha’s attic, since he is not a suitable replacement for the real Ash.
Other Black Mirror episodes that portray cyborg bodies to question humanity are Season 3, Episode 2: “Playtest” and Season 4, Episode 2: “Arkangel.” In these episodes, technology is inserted into every character’s brain, and it turns out the technology can never be removed, making them cyborg bodies forever.
In “Playtest,” a game is created that takes the player’s biggest fears and causes hallucinations that they are facing those fears, but the characters in the game cannot tell what is a hallucination and what is real. This episode represents the idea of the “hyperreal,” which is a postmodernist thought theorized by Baudrillard.
The hyperreal is “more real than real: something fake and artificial comes to be more definitive of the real than reality itself” (University of Houston). The hyperreal can be as simple as what is viewed on television. By simulating the hyperreal, Black Mirror is portraying posthumanism by questioning our sense of reality and our perspective of the world through the portrayal of a cyborg body.
“Arkangel” also portrays a cyborg body. In this episode, Marie has the Arkangel implanted in her daughter Sara’s brain. The Arkangel allows Marie to sensor over every aspect of Sara’s life, giving her the ability to see and hear what Sara sees and hears, and it also blurs out anything that causes Sara stress, making her unable to see or hear certain things, such as the dog that scares her when she walks to school. This episode represents the boundary being broken between human and machine, but also mother and daughter.
“Arkangel” is very Freudian, because Freud theorized that central to a male’s maturation, he must distance himself from his mother. Contrastingly, in “The Mother-Daughter Relationship and its Devastation Effects,” Sauza explains that Freud theorized that women cannot distance themselves completely from their mother (2041). Sauza writes, “Freud states that the result of the relationship between mother and daughter is catastrophic, which Lacan later called devastation” (2041). This episode shows the result of the daughter being unable to separate herself from her monstrous mother, and the devastating consequences of the inseparable two. By illustrating the Freudian theory of daughter and mother as lacking boundaries, Black Mirror perpetuates problematic patriarchal narratives.
Boundaries & Genres
In all of these episodes, many boundaries are being crossed, but the common border repeatedly crossed is between human and machine. In The Monstrous Feminine, Creed writes, “the concept of the border is central to the construction of the monstrous in the horror film” (11). This can be said of cyberpunk, science fiction, and dystopia, all genres in which Black Mirror embodies. In “The Persistence of Hope in Science Fiction,” Baccolini explains that the genres of science fiction, dystopia, and cyberpunk make people uncomfortable because they are deviant in blurring the borders and binaries between culturally constructed genres (519).
Baccolini explains, “Genres are then culturally constructed and rest on the binary between what is normal and what is deviant” (519). Similarly, the genres themselves are obsessed with borders and boundaries. Schmeink considers the heart of cyberpunk “the radical breaking up of dichotomies and the destabilizing of boundaries: machine/human, nature/culture, male/female, high culture/low culture, body/mind” (21). Works in these genres defy societal constructions in both the genre they embody as well as in the content they hold.
This idea of crossing boundaries is also posthumanist; Miah explains, posthumanism reflects a “transgression of boundaries and the position of humanity in relation to these concepts” (2). Therefore, Black Mirror’s constant crossing of boundaries is what makes it horror, cyberpunk, science fiction, dystopia, and posthumanist. Baccolini writes, “The notion of an impure genre, one with permeable borders that allow contamination from other genres, represents resistance to a hegemonic ideology and renovates the resisting nature of science fiction” (520). Therefore, Black Mirror pushes against what is normal and accepted in society by crossing boundaries, making viewers rethink their own perspectives of the world.
This crossing of boundaries is found often in posthumanist Black Mirror episodes through the portrayal of a blurred “machine/human” distinction. Black Mirror questions humanity: is a soul unique to humanity, or could a computer or technology encompass a soul? Black Mirror constantly blurs the line between humanity and technology, forcing us to question what it means to be human, and what impact technology will have on humanity.
Aside from cyborg bodies, Black Mirror questions humanness is by putting a soul into technology; for example, Season 2, Episode 4: “White Christmas.” In the episode, an affluent woman, Greta, has paid to undergo an operation to create a “cookie” of herself: a digital clone. Greta’s cookie cannot believe she is not the “real” Greta, and that she now lives in a piece of technology. With absolutely nothing to do in her little technological universe, even unable to sleep, Greta’s cookie is forced to be a slave to the Greta, making her toast, confirming her appointments, and ordering groceries; basically, just micromanaging Greta’s life.
Although Greta paid for this service, her cookie has been forced into living this life without her consent. Miah explains, “contemporary visions of posthumanism are informed by conversations on cyborgs or automata, which have often involved a reflective stance on humanity’s distinct and special place in the world” (2). Miah continues, “removing the body from subjectivity gives way to futuristic ideas about the legitimacy of such prospects of downloading brains and imagining a world where the moral concern of humanity extends to automata” (9). By the end of the episode, viewers sympathize more with Greta’s cookie than the actual human, a common theme in science fictions (Murphie 101). This episode is an example of how Black Mirror questions the premise of a soul: does it exist? Can it be placed into technology? Should technology have human rights? And finally, what does it mean to be human? Is the soul in the technology human, and if not, what is it?
This episode reflects the anti-body aspect of artificial intelligence that Ullman describes in “Programming the Posthuman,” which is a “suspicion of the flesh” and a “quest for a disembodied intelligence” (66). Black Mirror critiques this idea, arguing that our bodies are a critical aspect of our souls. For example, in “White Christmas,” Greta’s cookie is especially upset when she finds she no longer lives in a body. Matt, the person who has been paid to put her soul into a technology, explains that he will give her a body, because having a body makes the transition easier for the cookies.
Similarly, in Season 4, Episode 1, “USS Callister,” Robert designs an online game which he has turned into an alternate digital reality for his own personal recreation, in which he uses DNA to create digital clones of his coworkers. In this alternate reality, Robert is able to exert complete control over his coworkers. The digital clones especially describe how much they miss the simple pleasures of having a real body, such as pooping, which is societally seen as an act that is gross. Similarly, the digital clones miss their genitals, which have been replaced with just “mounds of flesh.” Sex is also societally perceived as dirty and wrong. These bodily functions that the digital clones wish to have back are the exact bodily functions that Ullman describes as “polluting the discussion of intelligence” (66). This illustrates the rejection of the natural, primal aspects of the human body that characterizes many portrayals of posthumanism.
By making us uncomfortable with the lack of bodily functions of the characters, Black Mirror’s commentary is that our bodies are an essential aspect of being human. No viewer is supposed to want to live in an alternate reality where they cannot even go to the bathroom or have sex. This episode also portrays the lack of boundaries: for example, the digital clones have no genitals and no anus, and at one point in the episode, Robert removes Nannette’s mouth, making her unable to breathe and forcing her into submission to him. The removal of her mouth exemplifies the removal of a boundary.
This episode is also a critique on the patriarchy. Robert is portrayed as having complete control in the alternate reality, but in real life, he is not powerful, therefore illustrating the idea of insecure masculinity. According to an article by Porter in International Peacekeeping, not meeting local idealizations of masculinity can cause “feelings of shame, humiliation, frustration, inadequacy and loss of dignity” (488). Porter illustrates how men feeling of insecure their masculinity often leads to them perpetuating cycles of violence and aggression (488). Although aggression is often seen as a feature of masculinity, Porter makes it clear than men are not inherently violent (489). It is the patriarchy that makes men feel like they have to be aggressive to “prove” their masculinity. Porter describes that fragile masculinity can stem from the fact that manhood is not a “given,” but rather that “manhood must be achieved” (488). This is portrayed in the character of Robert: since he is not powerful in real life, he has to turn to technology in order to feel masculine. Similarly, he forces the digital clones to celebrate him, and forces the women to kiss him. This episode of Black Mirror forces us to ask, should the digital clones have the same rights and respect as real humans?
Another episode that critiques the idea of souls living in technology is Season 4, Episode 6: “Black Museum.” This episode plays repeatedly with the premise of putting a soul into technology, but the main attraction of the museum is a hologram of Clayton, a man of color who is a convicted murderer. Clayton was put on death row and was coaxed by Haynes, the owner of the museum, into signing over the rights to his post-death consciousness. Haynes set up Clayton on display and viewers could pull a lever to make Clayton experience the agony of the electric chair repeatedly. Visitors could leave with a souvenir containing a copy of Clayton eternally in agony.
Nish, the main character of the episode, reveals herself as Clayton’s daughter, and to get revenge on Haynes, she poisoned him and after he dies, she transfers Haynes’ consciousness into Clayton’s hologram, simultaneously torturing Haynes and putting Clayton to rest. In the end, Nish gets revenge for her innocent father, but that still does not justify or make up for the horrible treatment his consciousness suffered for years, as well as the fact that Nish’s mother committed suicide. Also, her small victory does not get to the core root of the issue: people of color are often blamed and punished for crimes they did not commit.
The fact that Clayton was sentenced such a harsh punishment, the death sentence, reflects that fact that people of color suffer the most from the justice system. According to the Center for American Progress, people of color serve longer sentences for the same crimes, and they are put in prison far more often than their white counterparts, even though they are not committing more of the crimes (Kerby). This episode suggests that by putting souls into technology, humans could potentially be subject to being repeatedly tortured. That would disproportionally affect members of our society who are already treated unfairly by the justice system. Black Mirror asks viewers: should souls in technology have the same rights as real human beings do? Are those souls that are put into the technology truly human?
Black Mirror’s only hopeful portrayal of posthumanism is Season 3, Episode 4: “San Junipero.” This episode is essentially about the idea of heaven, enacted through technology. This episode follows two aging, dying women, but in San Junipero—a paradise within technology—Yorkie and Kelly are young, healthy, and carefree. Rather than being critical of posthumanism, this episode seems to possibly embrace the potentially positive outcomes of putting souls into technology. As Murphie and Potts explain, “Science fiction has often oscillated between hope and despair, between celebration and warning” (95). This episode is perhaps the only one in which Black Mirror portrays posthumanism through technology as potentially positive; Yorkie and Kelly end up happy together in San Junipero, living a life in technology in young, beautiful bodies, not plagued by the physical realities of aging. Black Mirror seems to ask, could posthumanism mean a technological heaven for souls who are sick or have passed away?
Then again, would you really want your soul to live for eternity? As Colatrella explains, “We treasure the celebratory and fearsome aspects of science and technology in acknowledging that even the most progressive innovations might have hidden psychological or moral costs uncomfortable to bear” (554). While this episode might seem to portray posthumanism in a positive light, viewers could still interpret “San Junipero” as a critique on putting souls into technology: shouldn’t people’s souls die when their bodies die?
Black Mirror promotes a posthumanist worldview by portraying multiple episodes with cyborg bodies, as well as episodes in which souls are put into technology. These questions make viewers wonder what is special about humanity, as well as our perception of reality. What is real? Through portraying a posthumanist society, Black Mirror can then expand its critique on humanity to critique social oppression. Herbretcher explains, “Posthuman and posthumanist therefore also means this: to acknowledge all those ghosts, all those human others that have been repressed during the process of humanization: animals, gods, demons, monsters of all kinds” (9). Therefore, in critiquing humanity, Black Mirror critiques the societal devaluation of other humans.
Black Mirror’s posthuman perspective could be extremely valuable as we try to rethink our place in the world, in turn helping us to de-center humanity while also helping us remember that we are interconnected with nature. Black Mirror’s posthumanism, through cyborg bodies and putting souls into technology, reminds us that we are animals, we are natural, and it is better that way. It also reminds us that we are interconnected and reliant on nature, and to save the world and prevent the end of humanity, the post-human, we need to save the planet.
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