At the Limits of Relationality: Teaching “Be Right Back”

by Christine Marks

Associate Professor of English,

LaGuardia Community College, CUNY

Teaching Note at Columbia University

Note: Page numbers from the print version are indicated in brackets and should not be considered part of the text of the article.

[page 86] In my “Relationality in American Prose Narratives” course (Columbia University, Summer 2017), we examined identity as a complex product of conscious and unconscious interconnections between self and other. The course focused on moments of interdependency and belonging, often intensified by personal loss and vulnerability, that unsettle ideals of personal independence and generate desire for relation and connection. Increasingly, our relationship with the outside world is mediated through technological extensions of the self, and boundaries between human and non-human are blurred. In the last segment of the course, we therefore explored human/non-human relations and the distinctions between human and artificial intelligence and emotions. To guide us towards discussions of these relations, I paired Philip K. Dick’s classic science fiction novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) with a screening of the Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back.” Androids takes the reader into a post-apocalyptic world in which any differentiation between humans and androids is becoming increasingly questionable, while “Be Right Back” reflects on the limitations and dangers of replacing interhuman with human/machine relations. Both examples take us into the uncanny valley of the nearly-human, probing the limits of relationality and empathy.

“Be Right Back,” the first episode of Black Mirror’s second season, tells the story of Ash and Martha, a young British couple living in a remote country mansion. Ash constantly negotiates his self-representations on social media, frequently losing awareness of the present moment. When Ash dies in a car accident, the grieving Martha uses a service that downloads all of the data that he has left behind on the cloud to create a replica composed of his digital remnants. While in its initial manifestation the Ash imitation just exists as a disembodied voice, Martha soon orders a synthetic flesh and blood version of her lost lover, an almost perfect copy. At first [page 87] enchanted with this resurrection of Ash, Martha soon begins to grasp its limitations, its lack of phenomenological selfhood and personal history. The artificial Ash does not breathe or eat, and he has no physical restrictions (for example, he can grow a mole, and he performs flawlessly in the bedroom, uninhibited by performance anxiety or tiredness). Martha quickly realizes that the imitation cannot replace Ash since it has no history and is simply a replay of the more superficial fragments of the original.

Within the context of our course, this episode allowed us to expand our discussions of relationality to address the complications arising from human encounters with the non- or almost human. Some of the questions we explored were the following:

· Under what conditions can we relate to each other? At what point does a relational encounter fail? What is an ethical relationship? (e.g., Hegel, Levinas, Butler)

· How are our relationships altered and mediated by technology?

· What impact do embodiment and relationality have on memory?

· What implications does the emergence of new intelligence have for our understanding of relational authenticity (e.g., Turkle)?

· To what degree do we already interact with nonhuman agents (e.g., Chopra and White), and how has this changed our understanding of relationality, agency, and legal personhood?

In our conversation, we reconnected with previous discussions by reflecting on Ash’s lack of human vulnerability, imperfection, and mortality as what ultimately disqualifies him from a relational encounter with Martha. We also reflected on the absence of mystery and self-consciousness, which prevents Martha from entering into and ethical and intersubjective exchange with Ash. The episode lends itself to revisit approaches to self-other relations by philosophers and theorists such as G. W. F. Hegel, Emmanuel Levinas, Martin Buber, and Mikhail Bakhtin. For example, at the beginning of the semester, we read excerpts from Hegel’s reflections on self-consciousness in the Phenomenology of Spirit, in which he describes the initial encounter between two self-conscious beings as formative in the development of human consciousness. Ash, however, cannot mirror Martha’s existence through recognition, as he is neither self-conscious nor [page 88] independent. Rather, he is Martha’s “slave” from the beginning, programmed only to fulfill her wishes. Martha’s frustration with his lack of resistance or spontaneity helps to illustrate the “master’s” inability to find recognition through the mediation of the slave’s reflection.

Since Ash’s replica’s self-expression is limited to the data that he received from the original Ash’s online presence, he also has no way of revealing new and surprising facets of himself. While, for instance, the “real” Ash unexpectedly revealed himself to be a Bee Gees fan at the beginning of the episode, there are no surprises hiding underneath the digital surface of the new Ash. Martha’s despair over Ash’s complete transparency served as an illustration of concepts such as Levinas’ ethical encounter, which is founded on the mystery of the other and the primacy of alterity. Martha cannot engage in an ethical relationship with the new Ash, since such a relationship ought to be a “relationship with a Mystery.”

Beyond these reflections on consciousness and self-other relations, the episode also deepened our thoughts on memory: Unlike synthetic Ash, who can only rearrange and replay recorded memory sound bites, humans rewrite the stories of their pasts over and over, constantly adapting to lived experiences of the present. Humans reinvent themselves and create fictions to align past and present into a story of the self.

Suggested Readings

· Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays.

· Buber, Martin. I and Thou.

· Butler, Judith. Senses of the Subject.

· Chopra, Samir, and Laurence F. White. A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents.

· Hegel, G.W. Phenomenology of Spirit.

· Levinas, Emmanuel. Time and the Other and Additional Essays.

· Turkle, Sherry. “Authenticity in the Age of Digital Companions.”

MLA citation (print):

Marks, Christine. "At the Limits of Relationality: Teaching 'Be Right Back.'” Supernatural Studies, vol. 4, no. 2, 2018, pp. 86-88.