Is there any way out? Black Mirror as a critical dystopia of the society of the spectacle

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One of the most appalling (and appealing) aspects of Black Mirror is the atmosphere of complete hopelessness in which the majority of episodes end. This essay, however, tries to prove that, at least in Nosedive, there is a way out. Using the concepts
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    85    Via Panoramica: Revista de Estudos Anglo-Americanos, série 3, vol. 7, n.º 1, 2018   Is there any way out?  Black Mirror   as a critical dystopia of the society of the spectacle  Juliana Lopes FACULDADE DE LETRAS DA UNIVERSIDADE DO PORTO –  CETAPS Citation: Juliana Lopes. “Is there any way out? Black Mirror   as a critical dystopia of the society of the spectacle .”  Via Panoramica: Revista de Estudos Anglo-Americanos , série 3, vol. 7, nº 2, 2018, pp. 85-94. ISSN: 1646-4728. Web: http://ler.letras.up.pt/.   Abstract One of the most appalling (and appealing) aspects of Black Mirror   is the atmosphere of complete hopelessness in which the majority of episodes end. This essay, however, tries to prove that, at least in Nosedive, there is a way out. Using the concepts of (canonical) dystopia and critical dystopia, as understood by Rafaela Baccolini and Tom Moylan, along with Guy Debord’s idea of the society of the spectacle, I will provide a theoretical apparatus to support my analysis of the episode. After identifying the main aspects which cause and perpetuate the dystopic state on the episode, the paper will also explore their effects on people. Having this context in mind, the essay focuses on the importance of performances and social masks as one of the main results of a dystopia of the society of the spectacle. Then, it analyzes the role of different characters who somehow manage to escape the dystopic order and, simultaneously, reflects on the intriguing ending that only seems to reinforce the possibility to face Nosedive as a canonical dystopia. In conclusion, this essay argues that the non-obvious ways out of that dystopian state have actually a bigger impact on the audience. Resumo Um dos aspetos mais espantosos e atraentes de Black Mirror   é a atmosfera de completa desesperança na qual a maioria dos episódios termina. No entanto, este ensaio busca provar que, ao menos em Nosedive, há uma saída. Usando os conceitos de distopia (canônica) e distopia crítica, definidos por Rafaela Baccolini e Tom Moylan, assim como a ideia de Guy Debord de sociedade do espetáculo, providenciarei um aparato teórico para embasar minha análise do episódio. Após identificar os principais    86    Via Panoramica: Revista de Estudos Anglo-Americanos, série 3, vol. 7, n.º 1, 2018   aspetos que causam e perpetuam o estado distópico em Nosedive, explorarei seus efeitos nos personagens. Tendo este contexto em mente, o ensaio foca na importância de performances e máscaras sociais como um dos principais resultados de uma distopia da sociedade do espetáculo. Depois, analiso o papel de diferentes personagens que de alguma forma conseguem escapar a ordem distópica e, simultaneamente, reflito sobre o final intrigante que só parece reforçar a possibilidade de encarar o episódio como uma distopia canônica. Concluindo, este ensaio argumenta que as formas não óbvias de escape da sociedade distópica apresentam, na verdade, um maior impacto na audiência. ***** 1.   Introduction Black Mirror   is undeniably one of the most acclaimed series by the critics in the present times. Even though each episode of the dystopian TV/Internet series, created in 2011 by Charlie Brooker, has its own plot and characters, there is a common element among all of them: technology and, more importantly, how it seems to dominate everyone’s lives, stimulating alienating and problematic behaviors. The society of the spectacle is intrinsically linked to these elements, as both cause and effect of the alienation provoked by technologies, which is well portrayed in Nosedive , the episode I chose to analyze. Relating and reflecting upon these three aspects –  the society of the spectacle, alienation and technologies – , this work intends to research whether Nosedive  can be read also as a critical dystopia and the implications it might have on the audience. Since in Black Mirror   the main characteristics of the dystopic state are the same that define the society of the spectacle, the present essay also aims to identify these aspects according to Guy Debord’s book, The society of the spectacle ( La Société du Spectacle,  Buchet/Chastel, 1967) , relating and analyzing them to Nosedive . When Debord wrote it, he was probably thinking about the cinema and the television, which, even though were extremely influent, were much less powerful than the internet and all the impact it had on the daily life. Nowadays, the spectacle is literally everywhere. Aware of this fact, the creator of the series, Charlie Brooker, said to The Guardian : “The ‘black mirror’ of the title is something you will find in every table, in the palm of every hand: the cold and shiny screen of a TV, a monitor or a smartphone” (Brooker). Each episode shows a different side of the new and “improved” (or worsened) society of the spectacle.    87    Via Panoramica: Revista de Estudos Anglo-Americanos, série 3, vol. 7, n.º 1, 2018   Even though Debord’s book was written in 1967, there are many of its propositions that contribute for a better understanding of the present times. However, I deliberately chose to leave aside the political and economic aspects of Debord’s text, since I believe that what relates most with this episode of Black Mirror   is the impact of the society of the spectacle in social communication –  according to him, the spectacle is “a social relation between people that is mediated by images” (7), even because the spectacle would be “the opposite of dialogue”   (11). In Nosedive , the first episode of the third season, the main point of critique is precisely that: Lacie Pound lives in a society where in every interaction, real or virtual, people can use their cellphones to rate others from 1 to 5 stars. Although it might seem that there is nothing new to this idea, the difference between this society and ours is that people are rated not only by their posts on social media, but also by their actions. Those called “high fours”, who are rated 4.5 or higher, are “influencers” and have many privileges and discounts in different areas, which is the reason why Lacie wants to become one –  she wants to rent an expensive apartment, but she will only be able to pay it if she gets the discount. When Naomi, her school friend, invites Lacie to be her maid of honor, Lacie sees in that an opportunity to boost her rating: if she makes the perfect speech at the wedding, Naomi’s husband’s friends –  all high fours –  will be impressed and will rate her positively. However, when she hears in the airport that her flight to the wedding’s dinner rehearsal was cancelled, Lacie loses control and argues with an attendant. Since the airport has a “zero tolerance on profanity” policy, a security guard punishes Lacie removing one point of her rating and putting her on “double damage”: every negative rating that she receives wi ll be multiplied by two in the next 24 hours’ period. She then decides to rent a car and drive for 9 hours to get to the wedding, and when her car runs out of electricity, Lacie gets a ride from Susan, an elder woman with a 1.4 rating. Susan exposes to Lacie the absurdity of that society, but Lacie is only convinced that there is something wrong when Naomi calls and asks her not to go anymore, claiming that she cannot have a “2.6” in her wedding. Furious and desperate, Lacie goes on, still heading to the wedding. When she arrives there, dirty, hysteric and drunk, she still makes a speech, but not the one she had rehearsed to do; Lacie exposes to the guests how she feels about Naomi’s apparent perfectness and, by doing so, she also highlights the fakeness of their relationship and her “friend’s” futility. Finally, she is removed from the wedding by force and is arrested (it is not clear, though, if she is arrested for invading a private place or for possibly achieving a zero rate). The episode ends with Lacie and another    88    Via Panoramica: Revista de Estudos Anglo-Americanos, série 3, vol. 7, n.º 1, 2018   man in jail offending each other –  since they have nothing left to lose, they do not need to pretend anything anymore: they can say whatever comes to their minds. 2.   Dystopic society: causes and effects in Nosedive   It is necessary, first of all, to identify the several mechanisms that create and perpetuate that dystopic state in the episode. The most evident is technology, and even though it cannot be considered a “villain”, it acts as a catalyzer of negative actions and behaviors. In Nosedive  it is directly connected to the spectacularization of daily life through social media, and it acts as an alienating mechanism. As Debord says, “the spectacle’s social function is the concrete manufacture of alienation” (16). Another aspect that maintains the dystopic structure here is the socioeconomical hierarchization of society through the rating system. According to this hierarchy, the high fours deserve rights and privileges that are denied to those who are in a lower position in the rating pyramid –  they are not allowed to go into some spaces and might have health treatments rejected if there is a person with a better rating waiting for the same medical care. In other words, “all individual reality has become social, in the sense that it is shaped by social forces and is directly dependent on them” (11). The political gap in this episode in particular also reinforces the decentralization of dystopia. Since no form of politics is shown, it reflects the fact that everyone creates that dystopia: it is not something imposed by a dictator, but perpetuated by all people. It is not, however, just “society’s fault”, generically speaking; it is each person’s fault as well (and here lies one of the many forms of criticism directed towards the spectator). Technology seems to be intrinsically related to dystopias –  critical or canonical –  and it is usually connected to some mechanism that controls the masses. This domination, however, can be much more effective if people are unaware that they are being controlled. Even though social media can be used as a powerful source of decentralized information, it might be an alienating tool, reinforcing self-centered behaviors that might evolve into numbness, carelessness and isolation (noticing that they all affect not only the space of the body, but also of the mind). Since “separation is the alpha and omega of the spectacle” (13), the “lonely crowds” that Debord talks about are a predictable consequence of this system. According to him, “from the automobile to the television, all of the goods selected by the spectacular system are also its weapons to the constant reinforcing of the isolation conditions of the ‘lonely crowds’” (15). If the car and the TV were already considered isolating mechanisms,    89    Via Panoramica: Revista de Estudos Anglo-Americanos, série 3, vol. 7, n.º 1, 2018   the cellphones and compute rs enhance the feeling that we constantly live in “lonely crowds”: the scene in which the majority of the audience will instantly relate to Nosedive  is probably the one when a group of people reunited check their phones instead of talking to each other. Superficiality, as another effect of this society, is one of the biggest critiques in the episode: in every meeting, either in person or virtually, there is apparent perfection. There is a scene, for instance, in which Lacie buys a coffee and a cookie, immediately posting a picture of it on her social media. When she eats it, however, it tastes awful, which reinforces that, in this society, things are made only to be seen. Another evidence that superficiality is a major issue in the episode is that there is also a concern about fitting or not fitting into the beauty standards (Lacie is constantly exercising in the episode) and, in addition to that, their judgment of other people is based on really shallow interactions. Mass media and publicity also contribute to maintain the dystopic state by creating unattainable utopias. Curiously, these people’s utopia is not only to be rich; it is to be approved by other people, even if it means to reject a “true” identity (which is another consequence of the impacts of alienation in the society of spectacle). Lacie fights to buy her own utopia, to buy a way of life apparently better than the one in which she is, but in fact, there isn’t much difference. Even if she is not aware of that in the beginning, she lives in a dystopic society, and her personal utopia is simply the highest point of dystopia: to achieve a 4.5 rating. Lacie’s unbridled pursue of happiness is straightly connected to the next point: to reach utopias, a performance is necessary –  and if existence is a performance, there must be a rehearsal: consequently, Lacie rehearses in front of the mirror laughs, gestures and her speech as a maid of honor. Her performance is the adoption of a social mask, and, by the end of the episode, she understands that to resist society is to drop the mask. Lacie only gives up on her performance when her friend says she cannot have a 2.6 in her wedding, what would mean not getting the necessary rating to buy the apartment; in other words, she would not be able to buy her personal utopia. In the wedding scene, the image of Lacie –  muddy, drunk, with blurred makeup –  opposes the performative perfection of the wedding. Her speech, rehearsed to be fake, but perfect, what people wanted to hear, becomes what tries to break the perfectio n of Naomi’s marriage and life. By dropping her mask, she shows the fakeness of everybody else’s social costume. 3.   Critical or canonical dystopia: is there any way out?
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