Nihilism, Bodies, and Personhood in Black Mirror

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Charlie Brooker’s television series, Black Mirror, now residing at Netflix, has earned notoriety for its examination of how people use and rely on spectacular technological advances – and then suffer for it. There has been some discussion among critics as to whether the series has experienced a decline in quality and whether or not this is due to an increase in episodes, the writers repeating themselves, or too much emphasis on technology over characters. It may be due to all of the above.

Putting aside the question of how good the series ever was, I believe that there has indeed been a decline of quality in general. Black Mirror is a science fiction anthology in which stand-alone shows examine the effects of imagined technological advances on human life. Numerous episodes of the series deal with the potential for human consciousness to be copied and uploaded into computer programs. It shows consciousness being duplicated to run the household, for example; we see people flitting in and out of digital realms where they will be “stored” when they die; there are also instances of coworkers being copied and imprisoned in computer games, and so on. One episode even calls it “sentient” code, though that might not be the case for all these hypothetical technologies.

From a Catholic perspective, part of the problem is that Black Mirror has become overly preoccupied with a particular technological development, namely, digital consciousness, in ways that bear little relationship to how the Catholic tradition has understood personhood. Essentially, the stories focusing on digital consciousness are silly and inconsequential at best, nihilistic at worst.

Personhood and the Body

Black Mirror subscribes to an odd blend of radically materialist and dualist understandings of the human person. From the materialist perspective, the person is but a code in the brain that can be copied, and, absent technological advancement, does not exist apart from the brain. From the dualist perspective, the person and the body are distinct; the true person can be copied from the body and exist apart from it, no longer bound by its limits.

In contrast, the Christian view of the person assigns much more value to the body. The Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, discussing the Theology of the Body, says,

…the “living soul” of whom scripture speaks… is a single corporeal and spiritual whole, a person whom the breath of God has awakened from nothingness. The soul is life itself, of the flesh and of the mind; it is what Thomas Aquinas called the “form of the body”: a vital power that animates, pervades, and shapes each of us from the moment of conception, holding all our native energies in a living unity, gathering all the multiplicity of our experience into a single, continuous, developing identity… John Paul is quite insistent that the body must be regarded not as the vessel or vehicle of the soul, but simply as its material manifestation, expression, and occasion. This means that even if one should trace the life of the body back to its most primordial principles, one would still never arrive at that point where the properly human vanishes and leaves a “mere” physical organism or aggregation of inchoate tissues or ferment of spontaneous chemical reactions behind. All of man’s bodily life is also the life of the soul, possessed of a supernatural dignity and a vocation to union with God.

Similarly, Scott Beauchamp, discussing Black Mirror specifically, says,

It’s a categorical mistake to think that our entire selves inhabit our thoughts and those thoughts can be reconstructed and allowed to “live” somehow in a machine that crunches numbers. Humans exist inside of human bodies the same way that a tree exists inside of its form. Trying to extract the vegetative essence of the tree from its physical being would be a horrifying mistake.

Finally, Wesley Smith argues that

the soul as incorporeal essence is not capable of being digitized or uploaded. Without a soul, whatever the computer program might express would merely impersonate life.

This is likewise the case if the materialists are right and there is no soul. The totality of our physical existence is far more than the sum of our measurable thoughts or the pattern of neural synapses firing in the brain. We don’t just think in the way a computer calls up programs. We also feel. Our emotions change our bodies and our bodies affect our emotions as all three affect our life’s course. Such entirely subjective and infinitely complex events would not be replicable by even the most sophisticated AI computer. They can only be partially mimicked.

Pain and Pleasure without Bodies

With this in mind, the series confronts us with certain absurdities which Black Mirror tries to turn into a high-stakes drama. In episodes “U.S.S. Callister” and “Black Museum,” for example, digital persons face the threat of torture, but Black Mirror never ponders the rather fundamental question of what pain might be without a body. How, exactly, does one piece of code torture another? One would expect that disembodiment might entail freedom from such fears. Would pain be caused by some sort of deterioration of the code? If so, how could it last endlessly? There may be answers to these questions, if only for the purposes of the fictional universe and to make a thematic point, but Black Mirror has not even asked them in the first place.

Similarly, digital persons in “San Junipero” undertake a sexual relationship and fall in love before meeting in the real world. This raises more obvious questions: What are concupiscence and consummation without a body? Is code sexuality geared towards procreation, and can code feel pleasure or develop intimacy with other code? Anticipating this very scenario, Pope St. John Paul II pointed out in his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium vitae, that

the body is no longer perceived as a properly personal reality, a sign and place of relations with others, with God and with the world. It is reduced to pure materiality: it is simply a complex of organs, functions and energies to be used according to the sole criteria of pleasure and efficiency. Consequently, sexuality too is depersonalized and exploited: from being the sign, place and language of love, that is, of the gift of self and acceptance of another, in all the other’s richness as a person, it increasingly becomes the occasion and instrument for self-assertion and the selfish satisfaction of personal desires and instincts. Thus the original import of human sexuality is distorted and falsified, and the two meanings, unitive and procreative, inherent in the very nature of the conjugal act, are artificially separated.

In short, “San Junipero” is the apotheosis of the attempt to make sexuality meaningless. There is neither procreative nor unitive meaning at stake. There isn’t even pleasure! Instead, when two digital consciousnesses begin a sexual relationship, the only possible reason is for the sake of self-assertion, but without any further satisfaction. There is nothing inherently good about the act, and so this sexual liberation is actually a form of sexual nihilism. “San Junipero” wants to have its cake and eat it too: exalting all the pleasures of the body without the reality of the body itself, but never justifying how code can do this. When these consciousnesses lack bodies the self-gift inherent in human sexuality is impossible, but it is not even possible to pervert sexuality by making it into possessive abuse of another. Sexuality is absolutely meaningless in this world: Black Mirror celebrates a type of sexual “liberation” that gains its characters literally nothing.

Perhaps these characters are not sentient or conscious but simply programmed to “behave” as real persons do. The problem is that Black Mirror clearly intends for its audience to understand its portrayal as being more than an approximation of what life is like for sentient code; otherwise it would not demand that the audience feel sympathy for its protagonists. To them, digital consciousness is not just a program superficially imitating human interaction; these are characters who seek to avoid pain, who come to know each other better and grow in intimacy, exactly like real persons. Black Mirror can establish a memorable world, but it cannot answer the most basic thematic questions the world raises because it does not even realize the questions are there.

The Nihilism of Bodilessness

Ultimately, Black Mirror works best not as an exploration of the perils of technology and human foibles, but as an inadvertent depiction of the utter despair of transhumanism. The programmed nihilism of this series is not saying that nothing matters, or that humans are rarely anything other than stupid and brutal to each other. Instead, as Beauchamp says, what disturbs most about Black Mirror is “not the terrifying portrayal of a world gone wrong, but the empty and ultimately nihilistic evocation of the good.” We can see this best in the rare episodes that have ostensibly happy endings. In “San Junipero,” the good is “just a dance floor playing 80s pop tunes forever,” paired with the emptiest and most meaningless sex imaginable while the characters never have to reckon with the inevitability of death.

“U.S.S. Callister” offers something similar: freedom is living in a simulation of a Star Trek parody forever. Instead of being actors in a scene, the characters simply watch images on a screen; and there need to be more and more images of less and less depth to keep them entertained. This is the definition of “the good” in Black Mirror’s world of digital consciousness: no depth of meaning, just more 80s tunes and sex.

A Technological Tedium Worse than Death?

Death is the result of having a body in this world, and Beauchamp emphasizes that an eternal replicated life would be “tedium,” more of a punishment than something for which to hope. He further notes that all wisdom writing describes the importance of confronting the reality of death. Catholics look forward to the resurrection of the body, but before that, we must grapple with what it means to die and consider how our lives glorify God and grow to be more fully human, that is, more Godly. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI asks in Spe salvi,

do we really want this—to live eternally? Perhaps many people reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive. What they desire is not eternal life at all, but this present life, for which faith in eternal life seems something of an impediment. To continue living for ever —endlessly—appears more like a curse than a gift. Death, admittedly, one would wish to postpone for as long as possible. But to live always, without end—this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable.

But Black Mirror offers nothing else. Instead, Benedict argues that death allows us a self-fulfillment, as it were, whereas the tedious eternal dance does not: “With death, our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge. Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms.” The immortal digital characters of “San Junipero” and “U.S.S. Callister” never have to make this definitive choice, and so their lives can never take shape. They can never be fully human. They are immortal in the temporal sense but are not prompted to become more Godly. Ironically, their bodilessness makes them both less human and less divine. The lack of definitive death makes Black Mirror more nihilistic.

Jim McDermott describes Black Mirror as “one of the very few places where you can find a real exploration of the moral and social questions of our day.” Given the series’ cluelessness about fundamental aspects of human nature, that exploration can be of limited value. Although one might not take the depictions of digital consciousness too literally, nonetheless, if the show wants to give relevant commentary on human life it should at least understand what human beings are.

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1 thought on “Nihilism, Bodies, and Personhood in Black Mirror”

  1. Black Mirror subscribes to an odd blend of radically materialist and dualist understandings of the human person. From the materialist perspective, the person is but a code in the brain that can be copied, and, absent technological advancement, does not exist apart from the brain. From the dualist perspective, the person and the body are distinct; the true person can be copied from the body and exist apart from it, no longer bound by its limits.

    That blend, of course, is common in science fiction, and it is even common among people who should see the contradiction. Actually, you did an admirable job of stating it as a not-quite contradiction, but in practice believers in this idea simply bounce back and forth between radical materialism and belief that the body is merely a shell inhabited by an immaterial soul.

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