The Agonist Journal

“[T]he commonest, most ordinary curse of man—not so much that he was ever born and must die, but that he has to figure out the one and shape up to the other and justify what comes between, and that he is not a beast and not a god: in a word, that he is a man, and alone. All those, however, are the facts of life; the curse comes in the ways we try to deny them.”

Stanley Cavell, “Ending the Waiting Game”

Nozick’s Inferno

A minimal definition of the afterlife: the state of absolute freedom from illusion. It is always possible that you are abjectly mistaken about yourself. To be alive in this world (apart from all the other particulars) is precisely to be constantly vulnerable to such illusions. Faith in the afterlife is, first of all, a willingness to imagine that the truth will finally break upon each and every soul with unmitigated force. It will, in the end, be impossible to fail to see what you really are, entire.

If the afterlife (the idea of the afterlife) now seems bogus, naïve, pantomimic, then it is because the idea that the truth must be faced up to, that all are subject to an inviolable law by which all pretence and fraudulence is ultimately exposed and the superiority of authentic virtue proven, the idea that denial of the truth is identical with failure (“Deny a fact, and that fact will be your master,” as Russell Kirk puts it), that regardless of all stratagems and theories the truth will out—if, I say, we cannot seriously picture a final destination for the soul of man, then it is because this much simpler but closely related image, of the sovereignty of the real, of an authenticity uncreated by ourselves, is now equally outlandish and anathematized.

Robert Nozick dimly perceived this problem when he rebuffed the charms of his Experience Machine. The machine offers a vast array of pre-programmed life experiences (faultlessly verisimilar), “a lifetime of bliss (if that’s what you choose).” Why not fulfil every fantasy? Why not gorge oneself at the bottomless trough of virtual reality? Why persist in inhabiting the uncompliant and vexing world of nature when the obliging and lavish virtual world stands ready to receive nature’s refugees? Why not depart this patch of blighted earth for a comfortable tract of paradise? Because it would not be real, Nozick says. If we can rewrite the rules at our merest whim, then there is no longer any satisfaction in playing the game. Every joyful or edifying aspect of our lives depends on there being limits to our powers and obstacles to our desiderata. Being hedged in, laid claim to, subject to demands, and addressed from outside ourselves—that is the index of our creaturehood and the condition of our every happiness (I am departing from Nozick now). To deny this is to make apologies for hell.

The logic of damnation in Dante’s Inferno sees the damned undergoing torments that correspond to their sins. Dante shows the damned in hell mastered by those moral facts they have denied. If you plug in to the Experience Machine, if you renounce the difficulty of reality and opt instead for the on-demand satisfaction of the virtual, then you gainsay Dante’s logic of damnation and with it the picture of humans as participants in a transcendent morality. You implicitly affirm that by amassing enough power or exploiting enough luck you might find a shortcut to salvation.

“Plugging into the machine is a kind of suicide,” Nozick says. It is suicide in the sense that suicide is, in Chesterton’s words, “the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life.” It is both the ultimate ingratitude and the ultimate complacency, an emphatic “No” in the face of life’s whispered offer of transcendent meaning. It is untroubled complicity in the assault of hell upon heaven. It is the man who pawns his wedding ring to fund his mistress’s abortion. It is the man with selective memory as to those who love him.

In “Fifteen Million Merits” our hero, Bing, having endured existence in a totalitarian state of perpetual obligatory spectatorship (his residence is a tiny room covered in floor to ceiling touch screens and refusal to watch is punished by deductions from his “merits”—his social credit), and having spectacularly challenged his society’s political figureheads (judges on a TV talent show, of course), he is recruited as another content provider, turning his impassioned diatribe against the vacuity and inhumanity of the screen regime into a popular show. The system takes his animus against it and makes of it a saleable commodity, transforms his furious act of sedition into the means for others like him to vicariously, and harmlessly, indulge their seditious impulses. Bing is an updated version of Network’s Howard Beale, “an angry prophet denouncing the hypocrisies of our time,” who ends up as another servant of corporate masters blaring subsidised opinions from the TV.[1] (He is also a surrogate for Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker, who played the embittered, frequently indignant cultural critic for many years in his Guardian column, and made it clear how deeply self-conscious he was about his complicity in the celebrity culture he ridiculed and lambasted[2]).

In the final scene of “Fifteen Million Merits” Bing, now in expansive new living quarters, completes the sign off for his latest episode, carefully lays his signature shard of glass in its velvet-lined case (he held a glass shard to his neck in desperation, to threaten off anyone who would interrupt his righteous tirade; now it is a prop, like Archie Bunker’s recliner), pours himself a glass of juice and saunters over to what appears to be a row of plate glass windows overlooking a lush green forest. But we know we cannot trust anything that looks like a window. The juice seems to signify a wholesome reward, but it is also ambiguous: it is not a piece of fresh fruit; is it authentic? What we want for Bing’s sake to believe is a window is surely another mere semblance of transparency, the forest another digital mirage. Yet we are left with the tension unresolved between our uneasy hope and our unsettling doubt. If Bing stands before another screen then he has sold his soul for nothing more than an agreeable upgrade of the sham life he lived before; he has only been plunged deeper into illusion. Perhaps he knows the forest is unreal, but prefers this tranquil illusion to the vulgar ones he had to put up with before. Perhaps that small increase in his freedom is enough. But that would be a coward’s compromise, conceding far too much to the charlatans to whom he is, however contentedly, enslaved.

The ending of “San Junipero,” Black Mirror’s most acclaimed episode, is a direct contradiction of the ending of “Fifteen Million Merits.” “San Junipero” mocks those who saw the final shot of Bing as freighted with challenging ambiguity. Our heroines, lesbian lovers Yorkie and Kelly,[3] plug into the Experience Machine once and for all. Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth” plays over a montage of Yorkie and Kelly cavorting in their simulated pseudo-Californian resort, intercut with shots of a robot arm lighting up new modules in the mainframe that now houses the minds of the lovers. The digital necropolis hums efficiently along while inside its sterile carapace a blue sky beams over San Junipero, and Yorkie and Kelly hurtle joyously in their simulated Jeep along the simulated coast roads, in an endless summer of simulated sunlit bliss. On first viewing this I thought it must be darkly ironic, that this ending was, remarkably, among the show’s most bleak. But the whole narrative momentum of the episode ran against this judgement, and I learned that the critical consensus—supported, for what it’s worth, by Brooker, the showrunner and writer of the episode—held that this was “the one with the happy ending.” And yet it only looks like a happy ending if a fake pixel forest is a happy ending. Or if a lake of fire is a happy ending.

The Mask that Eats the Face

In his latest book, Terry Eagleton writes that “Wanting to live for ever is not necessarily a question of greed. To be greedy is to want more than your fair share, but there is no having one’s fair share of lying by the ocean or playing the clarinet.” There is, nevertheless, something unseemly, and indeed greedy, about all the most common ways that the desire for immortality is expressed. There is some such thing as having one’s fair share of youth, of teenage foolishness, of sexual naiveté, of callow self-indulgence, of playing in the sandpit, of running to Mom for a kiss when you skin your knee, for instance. That is exactly what is implied by exhortations to “grow up” (and it is part of what makes it appalling whenever a child is prematurely deprived of their innocence).

So Nassim Taleb is right to associate transhumanism with the repulsive sight of “a rich eighty-two-year-old man surrounded with ‘babes’.” We are all familiar with this kind of graceless ageing. Think of Joan Rivers’ waxwork visage. Advancements in simulating youthfulness cannot redeem the impulse behind such self-monstering. To chase eternal youth makes one ugly, frequently in both body and spirit, always at least in spirit. A human life has a certain shape (I mean not an individual human life but a human life as opposed to, say, a dolphin life), and a great many of our pursuits are imprinted with a particular value by virtue of the place they characteristically occupy in that shape: such that improper indulgence in those pursuits constitutes the wrenching out of shape of a life. There are agreed-upon metrics when it comes to judging the deformation of a person’s expected trajectory from womb to tomb and past all the intermediate milestones. Some signs of deformation are much less egregious than others. I submit that an elderly woman, close to dying, going to an 80’s-themed dance club and having casual sex with strangers she meets there is at least an absurdity, and probably an outrage. This scenario is essentially the initial premise of “San Junipero.”

For some, my take will probably sound too much like spluttering schoolmarmish moralism, but the underlying point here is indispensable to the idea of a “generation” as anything more than a biological concept. Belonging to a generation is not simply a matter of falling within a particular age range or having the physical hallmarks of having lived to that age. More important is having lived through a particular period and been subject to particular knowledge or experiences or mass phenomena (or ignorant of such things relative to other generations). Part of belonging to a generation is being a child of a particular era, which involves the expectation that you are sufficiently culturally literate to have registered, and in some way shaped up to, the defining events of that era. This conditions some aspects of what is seemly and unseemly for you. Allowing your behaviour to manifest certain historical ironies is a way of falling foul of an ethical norm (or at least of certain standards of taste). For instance, someone whose adolescence coincided with the disgraceful demise of a beloved pop idol should not be clueless as to the moral degradations of celebrity.

More generally, anyone who has witnessed a broad sweep of history has no business aping the recreations of callow youths. Most fundamentally, there are significations, in the form of physical characteristics and styles of behaviour, involving the generally reliable correlation of age with wisdom (if not just weariness) and youth with innocence (if not just ignorance), which we should not want to renounce because to do so would be a significant cultural impoverishment. The elderly look and act old and the youthful look and act young, and deviations from that rule strike us as unnatural and either repellent or risible, and these reactions are not just normal but culturally useful: they are not just a source of interpersonal order but encode reliable knowledge about human life at the cultural scale.

So when we learn that Yorkie and Kelly are both near the end of their natural lives, that the youthful figures we first met are merely avatars that the elderly Yorkie and Kelly are inhabiting, we have good reason to react with distaste (though distaste that is considerably tempered if not overcome in Yorkie’s case, given the revelation that she has been in a vegetative state since young adulthood). And for this reason their decision to spend eternity in their youthful avatars (especially Kelly’s decision to do so) should strike us as wrong. “San Junipero” is a hymn to juvenescence. But juvenescence, by my lights, is inherently obscene.[4]

Yorkie and Kelly’s relationship is to a normal marriage what a person’s affection for his pet is to a parent’s love for his young child. A pet will become aged, and perhaps become more disciplined and more steeped in habit, but it will never mature, will never grow old as a human will, so a pet owner’s love for his pet will never be as complex and profound, will never be shot through with visceral fear and wild hope and wistful regret and an intermingling of anguish and sheer joy, as a parent’s love for his child may be. Yorkie and Kelly, in their digital afterlife, will never grow old either, so they cannot be for one another what lifelong lovers have always been for one another. Without mortality casting its shade over their sunlit existence and menacing their sense of perfect security, the stakes of their commitment to one another are negligibly low. If we have all the time we could possibly want, then my choosing to spend it with you is never necessarily more morally significant than my choice of chocolate or vanilla.[5]

What is especially offensive about “San Junipero” is its bad faith. We might accept Kelly and Yorkie’s infantilism on the grounds that San Junipero is only a simulation. Their juvenescence is only simulated juvenescence. San Junipero’s resemblance to a holiday resort, a place of exception, where the ordinary order of things is suspended, where license is licensed, strongly encourages this judgment. But the denouement asks us to ignore this. It tells us that San Junipero is as good as real, that no derogatory “only” should be attached to “simulation,” that Yorkie and Kelly’s (eternal) life in San Junipero is no mere semblance of life. Their juvenescence, then, is genuine, and we are asked to accept it as a good. In this way “San Junipero” wins our assent to its morally challenging premise and then (correctly intuiting that few viewers would notice) revokes the very thing it used to win that assent.

We already treat virtuality as a suspension of morality. Our lives online are lives lived as if on holiday from reality. Slavoj Žižek has remarked (in The Fragile Absolute) that the human rights regime is an inversion of the Decalogue, a theoretical apparatus for granting permission to sin. Similarly, the virtual world of the internet is an inversion of the eschaton, where liberal democratic netizens (a natural development of the liberal democratic citizen) propel themselves ever further from the beatific vision, and by a cheap transgression attain a cheap transcendence. We find ourselves then in a cut-price afterlife, but indebted nonetheless, convinced of the boon of this discount ticket but increasingly anxious to catch sight of our destination. We are caught paying the boatman in perpetuity. Desperately, we deny the existence of the hedonic treadmill. Inexorably, we set it in motion with our every surrender to acquisitiveness and “autonomy.” If heaven is a place on earth then it is only another mask worn to hide the ultimate shame of our mortality.

***

“San Junipero” is a curious cultural artefact. Part of a series that is currently the purest expression of technological angst in popular culture and the bleakest fictional diagnosis of the dystopian present since J.G. Ballard, it is beloved as an exception to this rule. It is a Black Mirror episode that does not expose the horrors latent in our lives with our devices but instead reassures its progressive viewers, who might have received the distasteful impression that their belief in progress has unsurpassable limits, that despite all the scary possibilities lurking in the cultural imagination, they were right all along to say “Love Will Win.” Its failure as a work of science fiction and its unwitting success as a work of eschatological horror means it presents a particularly vivid image of a failure of morality and the terrible fate that necessarily accompanies it. It pictures a certain kind of curse. The Curse of San Junipero is that failure of moral imagination which makes us think tearing up our fig leaves is all that is required to transport us back to paradise.

Notes

[1] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V9XeyBd_IuA, in which Beale is spectacularly…I’m not sure what. “Red pilled”? “Pozzed”?

[2] Brooker can now be observed sparkling with Wildean wit on Twitter.

[3] It is easy to understand the acclaim that greeted “San Junipero” once we acknowledge that Yorkie and Kelly are meant to be, before anything, A Blow Struck Against Heteronormativity.

[4] Juvenescence is closely related to nostalgia. One way to become young again is to be surrounded by the paraphernalia of the past. Often it is not enough to look on from the perspective of youth; the scenery has to match. It needn’t even be your past for this strategy to be effective. It need only be a past, any past, provided it’s sufficiently distinctive. And so one of the modalities of nostalgia is juvenescent nostalgia. Another, its opposite, is that nostalgia which is a pretence of wisdom; one identifies with a previous era as a way of haughtily dismissing, or passing judgement on, the ephemeral concerns of the present. Both these modalities of nostalgia are combined in the current mania for the 1980’s, a time of juvenile amusements and hedonic indulgence, but also ruthless mercantilism and geopolitical dread. It is perfectly poised between inferior zeitgeists: it escapes the mawkish 60’s idealism and sleazy 70’s disenchantment that precede it, as well as the tranquilized 90’s complacency that follows it. It is the decade in which the future was prematurely realised, a future we can all unashamedly long to get back to. The mise-en-scène of San Junipero is chronologically promiscuous, but it never consorts with more than one era at a time, and it comes back always at last to its favourite paramour, the 80’s. (And there is no more effective way to deliver a frisson of the hauntological than combining sci-fi conceits with 80’s references).

[5] There is a half-hearted attempt to acknowledge something like this within the episode when Kelly makes an impassioned speech, referring to the trials and joys of her real-life marriage and parenthood, to angrily rebuff Yorkie’s proposal that they both upload themselves permanently to San Junipero. It is an outburst that Kelly evidently comes to see as unjustified, and the facts of mortal existence she appeals to in it are tacitly allowed to be irrelevant. It is also a cringe-inducingly awful moment of television. The poor actress playing Kelly does the best she can with a monologue that could have been written by a high school drama student.