by Bethany Holmstrom
[page 7] Fittingly, a lament posted on social media was the genesis of this issue on Black Mirror.
During a quick search for scholarly resources to supplement my teaching of Black Mirror episodes, I came up empty-handed — and mused about this deficit on a couple of platforms. There were certainly think-pieces, podcasts, and a good amount of digital ink spilled on the series, but there were no major scholarly articles out when the editors of Supernatural Studies generously suggested that we put together a call for papers. I hope that this special issue begins to set up future conversations around this compelling show.
The CfP drew upon Donna Haraway’s recent reflections on the speculative. Haraway posits a range of meanings embedded within the abbreviation SF: “string figures...speculative fabulation, science fiction, science fact, speculative feminism, so far.” For her, “SF is storytelling and fact telling; it is the patterning of possible worlds and possible times, material-semiotic worlds, gone, here, and yet to come” (35-6). It is the immediacy of that “possible” in Black Mirror that haunts us as viewers, with its many “strings” and strands of speculation that so clearly extend out of our own world.
The questions raised in the series are ominous, and prescient. From data and memories — storage, blunting, manipulating, archiving, extending, sequestering, installing in new virtual environments, from social media usage and hacking, to artificial intelligence and surveillance: the issues are myriad, and speak to a long-standing anxiety about and fear of technology and our supposed mastery of the “unnatural” things we make. Dr. Frankenstein’s monster is many ways the origin point of this brand of speculative fiction, where our creations take on their own desires and uses, unforeseen and unpredicted, forcing us to confront, in turn, our own hubris.
However, we must question whether this conception of technology as an independent force outside of humanity is ultimately a false construction. The tools and technologies we make are an extension of us, our consciousness, and our humanity writ large. They force us to simultaneously doubt the very designation of “human,” or what constitutes and separates humans from the machines that we make. Media engaged with artificial intelligence [page 8] most blatantly troubles this anthropocentric distinction, reminding us that machines can only execute what we teach and program them to learn. Thus, to use a classic SF film example, Skynet and the Terminator — originally created for war defense systems — are by nature militaristic, coded for domination through combat and the complete elimination of the opponent. This theme of technology as an extension or interrogation of humanity runs throughout the articles in this issue: how Haraway’s strings of speculative worlds in Black Mirror reflect us, and our specific moment — and the possible futures that can be easily extrapolated from our present.
Shastri Akella’s “‘We are Not in Control Anymore’: Technological Possessions Facilitated by Simulacrums in the Posthuman Reality of ‘Hated in the Nation’” looks at the interplay of surveillance via social media and government agencies, exploring the normalization of such practices and the layers of simulacra that the episode creates. To Akella, the drone bees used as tools of possession and surveillance additionally evoke a need to consider ecologically-sustainable posthuman creations.
Surveillance likewise informs Sarah Hildebrand’s article, “Grain Ethics: Voyeurism, Violence, and Traumatic Memory in ‘The Entire History of You.’” Hildebrand considers at length the implications of the “grain,” a technology embedded into people that visually/aurally records their memories. The grain becomes a vehicle to expose the fallibility of memory, but— in Hildebrand’s essay— it is also a tool that reinforces patriarchal heteronormativity. The grain tends to gender bodies, and its use conjures forth troubling questions around consent, voyeurism, objectification, abuse, and trauma.
Created/manipulated memories and perception are crucial to the military project that Kenn Watt discusses in “Wired: ‘Men Against Fire’ and the Revolution in Military Affairs.” Here, soldiers are supplied with wetware, making the fighters more effective at removing sympathy from combat situations, and allowing for the dehumanization that makes genocide possible. Watt contextualizes this techno-military project within the advent of the Revolution of Military Affairs during Clinton’s presidency. In addition, Watt considers the use of video games in the recruitment and training of military personnel, and how the soldier’s experience is “enframed” [page 9] in the world of the show — using technologies already present in the military sphere.
Chris Campanioni’s contribution, “How Do I Look?: Data’s Death Drive & Our Black Mirrored Reflections,” is a fascinating meditation on the role of the artist and observer in virtual reality. Campanioni questions the proposed boundaries between the real and the virtual, and tracks how we move through virtual and digital spaces: keeping in mind the inevitable data and traces we leave in our wake. Questions around life extension via chatbots or virtual reality ask us to consider how death, life, and presence again trouble what it means to be human — and/or to be machine.
Because this call grew out of a desire to teach Black Mirror, this issue also includes a section with teaching notes. Professors Minerva Ahumada, myself, Rebekah Johnson, Christine Marks, Claudia Moreno Parsons, and Leah Richards share how we have used episodes in a variety of contexts and courses — undergrad and graduate-level, composition, literature, liberal arts, and philosophy. Our notes suggest a wealth of ways into episodes, and reveal the rich pedagogical opportunities that the series provides.
Bethany Holmstrom, Ph.D.
Haraway, Donna. “Staying With the Trouble: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene.” Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism, edited by Jason W. Moore, PM Press, 2016, pp. 34-76.
MLA citation (print):
Holmstrom, Bethany. "Introduction." Supernatural Studies, vol. 4, no. 2, 2018, pp. 7-9.