Saturday, September 19, 2015

Beyond the End of the World

"For it is the end of the world that is in question here; and that could be exhilarating if apocalypse were the only way of imagining that world’s disappearance... Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism." 
- Fredric Jameson, 2003

“I thought IBM was born with the world/ The US flag would float forever/The cold opponent did pack away/The capital will have to follow/ It's not eternal, imperishable/Oh yes it will go/ It's not eternal, interminable/ The dinosaur law
Look at the symbols, they are alive/ They move evolve and then they die.” 
- Stereolab, "Wow and Flutter" 

And yet, here we are in 2015, and Sam Esmail has imagined the end of capitalism. Something no one thought possible in a popular medium, let alone a television program on a third rate basic cable channel like USA.    Okay, well there’s always Season 2 and maybe capitalism will make a triumphant return.  After all, the markets always bounce back even if they take less and less people with them each go-around, but something about the fSociety hack feels bigger, just as the naked exposure of self-serving bailouts did when the subprime housing market began to tank.

Even if there is potential danger in the storytelling to come, for now let’s just bask in the fact that Mr. Robot has become something special, something unique in the landscape of the popular imagination that could have Blade Runner-esque ripples.  It remained a zeitgeist show par excellence, but perhaps not because of some esoteric soothsayer intuition about the horoscope of the world.  Mr. Robot instead knew how to read the culture because it familiarized itself with its core- not the tired old Oedipal issues or dry intonations on male impotence, nor mere grief on consumer alienation or human empathy impeded by cartoonish powerlust and greed.  Mr. Robot focused its jaws attentively on the long con of accepted logic, so much so that it made status quo into a foreign culture.  It did so through a character who felt the regular pull of normal society, but never felt comfortable walking among it.  Elliot feels deeply the loneliness of living outside; counter to culture but counterculture less of a hip alternative to the gray flannel squares than a forbidding gambit of departure from any sense of community.  A heresy that spells excommunication from the state religion.  “I hate Facebook”, Elliot says at one point.   Elliot also winds up becoming so fractured by this dissent that it’s clear that he doesn’t even fully understand the folds, but he still maintains his disgust. His wide-eyed negativity is unwavering. Elliot doesn’t reject society, he wants to f society- fix it or fuck it up, the jury’s still out. 

Esmail has created a space in the popular culture where we are able to visualize not the apocalypse, the end of all civilization, but instead the end of that thing which uncivilizes us.  It was the next logical step after Marvel films banalized us to the notion of, as John Lydon and Afrika Bambaata cheer over the opening credits of Mr. Robot’s ace season finale, “world destruction”.  Apocalypse has now become fodder, backdrop for motion picture magic shows or TV melodrama.  In an attempt to depoliticize/delibidinize dystopia and apocalypse, the big and small screens have made large scale destruction an empty metaphor, backdrop to what happens while our most rotten mythologies linger on.  It trains us to expect the shock doctrine, the cold realism of 20 plus dead schoolchildren and no meaningful change, as shock dogma- a culture willing to let civilians be slaughtered on camera so long as the people most upset about this are not rude in their attempts to rectify this social injustice. 

In fact, you could call Mr. Robot the first truly “post-apocalyptic” work of popular art in that it’s the first narrative that forgoes the trend in apocalypticism to witness the end of capitalist civilization as not the end of the world but potentially the start of something new.  It’s clear in the season finale that the plates have shifted and then the transition will not be smooth, but it’s also not the end of everything

One can’t help but think of 2008 as Elliot watches actual world leaders on the screen scrambling to find a way to wrap their heads around the (fictional and highly unlikely but still delightful proposition of the) erasure of personal debt, debt being one of the key stakeholders in the delicate domino game of world economics.  There are so many finely stacked pieces holding the power structure together by threads that the loss of any given one- say, China’s gigantic bubble, the automobile industry, the ownership class’s investment in the perpetual lag of wealth generation by the bottom caste- and the bottom will inevitably fall through.   Esmail chooses hackers as one of the potential cracks in the police state built around this fragile edifice, but he’s also aware of how their righteousness is its own private tyranny, power bestowed upon itself like a CTO mad with power.

This is why Tyrell (speaking of Blade Runner) makes the perfect bedfellow to Elliot.  In look, demeanor, and even gaze, Tyrell Wellick is Patrick Bateman, representative of the completely sociopathic aspect of capital, the one that will sell you Bumfights, that will murder, that will peep on you while you’re sitting on the toilet.  His disappearance is sort of a McGuffin, but it’s posed as the central mystery of the season finale.  By going through with the hack, did Elliot delete him, make him and his altarboy devotion to personal individualized power completely unnecessary?  

One of the show’s shortsights is its portrayal of its elite, rich characters as callous and uncaring, each one way more Rand than Jobs, more RAND than TED.  In actuality, most executives may care deeply, but be powerless to do much.  They may do little, but insist that this small part is the best one can hope for in the public’s interest.  They may care less, but work tirelessly to project a persona of caring that they believe to be infectious.  Many think that the plebes themselves are plenty dignified, and have even convinced themselves that they’re doing good by them rather than perpetuating their struggles through the tiny ill-fitting life jackets they throw them- paid sick days, better-than-average healthcare, childcare discounts.  It wasn’t long ago that Netflix announced that they were heroically offering all their employees unlimited paid parental leave before it quickly leaked that this would only apply to their salaried (white collar) staff and they were proactively taking steps to ensure that their hourly employees wouldn’t qualify. 

Tyrell is like a parody of that popular Boss Tweed/Mr. Burns villain seen in far too many films and shows in that he’s comically bad at his ascent to power.    Every one of his schemes backfires because he buys into the self-determination ethos, that Stephen Covey/Sun Tzu axis.   When he does get to the gladhanding and networking dinners that actually do promote professional advancement, he’s impatient and skips past pleasantries to immediately announce his self-interest.  Tyrell is incapable of seeing the banality of evil and instead yearns for the excitement and titillation of those Wolf of Wall Street style narratives. 

The disappearance of Tyrell is the anarchist’s dilemma.   “Where is Tyrell” is really a question of “what happen to centralized power when one of its legs is kicked out”?  Where did it go, that evil that men struggle to do but must do?  That aching justification for a circle back to normalcy.  Remember, Tyrell was starting a family.  He had plans for the future.  He wanted to create something new too.  His displacement means that there is a void, a power gap.  How does that power get distributed in a way that it avoids re-arming those who’d wish to re-simulate recently dispossessed realities in new forms?  Elliot’s just a kid, just a tech, not even in his right mind.  He dreams of destruction, but it’s unclear if he has any thoughts towards reconstruction or if he just wants to enjoy the schadenfreude of the “beautiful carnage we’ve created”.

Unlike Tyrell, Elliot at least realizes that in a rigged system, you need to control perceptions of your intentions. Sometimes you even need to hide them from yourself.  On Andy Greenwald’s podcast at Grantland, Esmail emphasized that one of the things the first person narration is supposed to make the audience wonder is “Is Elliot really talking to us”?  Elliot’s imaginary friend that talks to in the voiceover is the divide between the fictional world where the end of capitalism really is happening and the other side of the screen where we pretend it’s not and scramble to restore order from the latest round of self-destructive, species-threatening limitations we impose on ourselves to minorly enhance the wealth of the super-privileged.    The show challenges its audience to actually think of it as more than breezy summer reading, a collection of cool references to Banksy (the graffiti outside the parking lot where Tyrell’s abandoned car lays), Clockwork Orange (the carnival-esque moog that plays as Elliot wanders into Evil Corp’s offices), and Under the Skin (the Mica Levin-like music that plays as Elliot and Tyrell’s wife Joanna have one of the strangest interactions ever caught on television).   Mr. Robot announces “Yes, I am a polemic” with no apologies and dares you to accept it.  Yet critics, chickenshit as they are, are actively trying to bury the message, perhaps out of fear that USA might pull the plug if it realizes it accidentally created a hit show whose core message is 95 Theses nailed against the door of every Chamber of Commerce across the country the station is named after. 

Mr. Robot makes no attempts to mask its hideous intentions either.  The season finale is peppered with allusions to the Titanic to highlight the inevitability of collapse.  Gideon mentions that keeping Allsafe afloat is akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, but then faces the music himself when he decides to fold the company.  Speaking of music, a character only known as Whiterose who seems to have some connection to both the Chinese government and the cyberterrorist group the Dark Army hosts an Evil Corp executive at a lavish party where he proclaims his love of harp music, which he claims Nero listened to as Rome burned.  The song playing though is actually “Nearer My God, to Thee”, a song infamously played by the orchestra as the Titanic sank.  A religious hymn about Jacob’s ladder, it actually has a larger history than just that though. 

The song has a tradition of being played at funerals for important figureheads.  Notably, in 1980 after the launch of CNN, the first 24-hour News Network, Ted Turner proclaimed to the Los Angeles Times that “‘Barring  satellite problems, we won’t be signing off until the world ends. And we will cover it live. That will be our last event.”   In that article, Turner flippantly suggested that as the world ended they’d fade with the national anthem, but in actuality CNN did produce a video that it hid in its vaults until this year, scheduled to only be played at the end of the year.  A stoic, kind of bland video of a marching band playing “Nearer, My God to Thee”. 

Mr. Robot is not just a show of its time, as exemplified in the many ways it foretold current events, but more importantly it’s a show that is characteristically out of another time.   This is now longer the bleak fatalism/capitalist realism of The Wire, where the only guarantee is suffering and heartbreak.  We’re living in a world where Pikkety’s update on Karl Marx was a bestseller and the leaders of the left parties in both the US and the UK identify as socialists.  Black Lives Matter is helping illustrate daily how state violence is the desperate refuge of a sick, ailing society. Edward Snowden is a folk hero, even as he sits extradited as a wanted criminal.  And Mr. Robot is the breakout hit of summer. The more Kim Davises created, the more they just appear as the creaky refuse of a dying or dead world, no more alive than the thing on Donald Trump’s head.  For years, neoliberalism fed us a narrative of the end of history, no future, but suddenly there was one- even if we didn’t know what it was or what it demanded of us.   The future is uncertain at Mr. Robot’s season finale, but it has created something new for the public imagination to dream.  It has created an open space, life beyond the end of the world.

Postscript: fitting that Trump would run around campaigning to "It's the End of the World (As We Know It)" since his entire campaign is based around prolonging the fear of the future.  Let's just hope enough of us aren't having it to let his cartoonish villainy reverse the small wins that have gotten us to this point.

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