Digital memory, masculinity and control in Black Mirror S1E3: “The Entire History of You”
A few days I started rewatching what is, in my opinion, one of the best, most thought-provoking shows on television, Black Mirror. You can catch all seven episodes of it on Netflix, and I really do recommend it if you’re a fan of shows like the Twilight Zone or Twin Peaks. The show uses technological advances to explain the darker parts of the human condition and does a great job of asking those huge questions about selfhood, memory, love and human sympathy. Wanting to sort of create new content for this blog and speak less about the sort of heady, large, ideological topics which I find in my studies, I decided to analyze one of my favorite episodes.
“The Entire History of You” begins with Liam, the protagonist, in a boardroom. From the get-go, Toby Kebbell portrays Liam as a self-doubting, self-deprecating individual. The ways that Liam interacts with the board members demonstrates an underlying duplicity – “How do I want to respond?” and “How am I supposed to react?” His body language, his cadence, and his questions in this scene are deliberate. When the board members suggest that Liam’s firm will begin to representing clients seeking litigation for undesirable upbringings, Liam asks, through his face, “The firm’s okay with that ethically and morally?” The board members are silent, and one of them responds curtly “Yep.” Liam’s response, “Totally, yeah” is already too late to save him from the ramifications of his initial question, which in itself reveals his own moral and ethical objections to the idea. This is the reason why Liam believes his meeting went poorly – he acted not as he was supposed to, but as he actually felt, and therefore revealed to his employers that he was perhaps too much rooted in his own sense of right and wrong to cross the clearly questionable moral ground of the task at hand. It is because of the rather vague outcome of the meeting that Liam replays the memory over and over again through his Grain, attempting to make sense of what has just happened, and to piece together some possible outcome.
The moral dilemma in “The Entire History of You” is between Liam’s feelings and his actions, between the internal and external phenomena which constitute the masculine self. The Grain as a piece of technology is at the center, not because the show is “technology-themed” but because the digitalization of visual memory serves a site of control and domination for Liam, and therefore inhibits, as oppose to facilitates, his personal development. In this post, I’m going to try to unpack the relationship between the theory of masculinity and dominance which Liam embodies and its relationship to science fictional memory. Ultimately, Liam’s propensity to revisit the past through visualization lends itself to his desire to control not only his wife’s past, but also the ways which his wife’s image is used and remembered by Jonas.
The story of “The Entire History of You” is quite depressing. A small, self-conscious, temperamental and perhaps even alcoholic man, Liam, attends a dinner party with his wife, Ffion (Fi), only to find that one of his wife’s ex-boyfriends (Jonas) is attending. Throughout the night, Liam pays close attention to the way Fi and Jonas interact, his Grain, a mind-machine interface, recording his vision as digitized memory. Liam’s prying nature, as well as his past uproars about Fi’s past, ultimately leads him to distrust his wife’s words and, in a drunken state, arrives at Jonas’ house the morning after the party and forces him to delete all of the stored memory Jonas has of his relationship with Fi. In the process of doing so, Liam, ever the astute and observant individual, realizes in the television visualization of the Grain’s interface that the apparently brief and time-bound fling between Fi and Jonas was never truly finished, and that Fi had in fact been unfaithful. Despite her pleas that her unfaithfulness was in response to Liam’s dominating and hyperbolic personality, Liam forces his wife to display all of the memories of her recent sexual encounter with Jonas in order to prove whether or not their daughter is his. At the end of the episode, Fi has taken her daughter and has left Liam, who is still living at their marital home by himself. In the process of getting dressed one morning, replaying over and over again the happier times of their marriage, Liam decides to “gouge” himself, removing the Grain, which he sees as the only way of freeing himself from reliving the past over and over again. The episode ends by echoing a moment from the dinner party, when a late-arriving guest, Hillam, mentions that she was “gouged” of her grain, but luckily maintained her vision. The black at the end of the episode can be inferred to stand for Liam’s blindness, a side effect of removing the Grain from his body manually, and a metaphor for his masculine myopia.
To begin, I want to open with the sort of foreground for the episode: the inventive technology of the Grain. In the social media age, there exists a thousand and one different ways of storing and sharing information with others. This blog, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Google+, Tinder and Snapchat are all but examples of the various ways that human beings have become ever more interconnected across large spans of space. If oral communication can be seen as a way of sharing ideas across relatively small distances of space, social media can be seen as a magnification of this idea. The philosophy of communication is dense and heady, but what I’d like to do here is offer an explanation for how sharing narrative memory undercuts the notions of the constructed self within language – as we see in another Black Mirror episode, “Be Right Back” – by avoiding, or at least mitigating, the question of subjectivity. Liam’s perspective does not necessarily inform his memories. All we have are the literally footage of his mind, jotted down for posterity. The question of subjectivity is rooted nonetheless in what Liam chooses to see, but the difference between organic and digital memory is really in the question of “What is remembered?” With organic memory, details can slip away; we remember the gist of things, but the small things, like the body language of one individual in a room of ten or eleven guests, escapes us. Digital memory is always running, always filming away. We are only able to forget what we physically delete, and even still, these memories linger in our minds, repressed, suppressed or otherwise left alone.
I could spend hours writing about this topic alone, but what fascinates me, as a person who is himself quite self-doubtful, is the ways that digital memory lends itself to a constant and obsessive rememory of the past. Liam finds himself reliving the past over and over again in order to see where he went wrong in a way which our minds alone perhaps are incapable of perfecting. While it is possible, and likely, that we will relive past experiences, refeel past emotions, but memories degrade with time. If we consider our memories to be reels of film, it is incredibly difficult to maintain these physical objects without losing, eventually, some semblance of their clarity. An event that happens in childhood, especially one as insignificant as a dinner party, will likely be grayed, tattered and conceptual in late adulthood. Digital memory, following this metaphor, is therefore like a file on a computer. Thousands of years from now, the file will not have degraded, for is stored in a format which in its very nature is meant to survive for all time. The visual and audile nature of digital memory allows Grain users to more thoroughly and viscerally engage with the past. The ever-running nature of the Grain’s memory-capturing mechanism means that we can no longer selectively police our own histories, echoing the conversation about implanted memories from the dinner party. The mind no longer serves to rectify itself based on the events of the past, for the entirety of one’s history is there, objectively and holistically. This is why Fi is broken at the climax of the episode – she knows the truth, because the truth has been rendered objective and irrefutable. When you digitize memory, you diminished the power of one’s personal narrative to that of a platitude. Fi’s lies – or perhaps, “untruths” – about her past with Jonas are meaningless when we consider that all memories are accessible, and that the past can be easily played out on a screen for the consumption and interpretation of not only the self, but others. Selective memory, a survival mechanism of the human mind, to rationalize and mitigate traumas, obsolesces.
Liam’s constant replaying of the past is ultimately a manifestation of his nevertheless domineering personality. Liam, in a layman’s terms, is a control freak and this manifests itself not only in his workplace, seeking to control the outcomes of events through the performance of “desired” selves, but also in his relationship to Fi and his antagonism to Jonas. The reason for this, nonetheless, is Liam’s self-doubt. Unable to reconcile his own role in his now-failing marriage, Liam seeks out – and unfortunately finds – evidence of Fi’s infidelity. His self-doubt interestingly enough is not manifested in his introspection, but in his complete disinterest in seeing himself as responsible for his fate. The world is his enemy, and he has consistently been punished for the person he was and not the person he has been scripted to be. These series of negative outcomes, of questionable interactions, trigger Liam to constantly replay the past, looking for evidence to prove that it’s not him who has wronged the world, but the world which has wronged him.
It would be in incredibly poor taste to not mention the roles which masculinity plays in Liam’s interactions with his wife. Liam, quite frankly, seeks to control and dominate his wife, going so far as forcing her to replay her own memories to rectify his own doubts. The question of infidelity is a wrench thrown into the machine of watching “The Entire History of You” because it allows us, momentarily, to see Liam’s mania as justified. The beginning and middle of the episode, up until Liam’s confrontation with Jonas, does not shine a nice light on the character – based on his interactions, his self-doubt, his self-consciousness, and his bitterly sardonic outlook, we are coaxed to view Liam negatively. He is unwilling to listen to his wife, and although her storied past with Jonas continues to shift, we are still drawn to view Liam as dominating and obsessive. However, when his fears prove true, when he finds that Fi and Jonas’ relationship runs deeper and bleeds dangerously into his marital life, we are forced to consider Liam’s attitudes as potentially justified. He has been proven right, and although we aren’t made to feel enmity towards Fi, there is a sort of dismal sympathy for Liam, who know is worried about the paternity of his daughter.
The heteronormative institutions and ideologies of marriage and parenthood excellently undermine the otherwise unacceptable behavior of Liam as a protagonist. We are able to unsee, or perhaps qualify, his egregious behavior by viewing him as an everyman. He wants to do well by his family at the end of the day, and although he is hotheaded, he is ultimately devoted to the image of his wife he keeps locked away within his digital memory. Fi’s infidelity, in response to Liam’s previous blow-up over another of her ex-boyfriends, is seen as her stepping outside of the boundaries of the sacred institution of her marriage. Her untruths signal her guilt, and her willing interest in withholding information which she finds deeply troubling and shameful. Because we live in a society which heralds marriage as the pinnacle and end-goal of all (normatively heterosexual) relationships, we are prone to shift our discomfort from Liam’s desire to control to Fi’s desire for comfort. This is ultimately informed by an ideology which dictates that Liam’s traditional dream of home and hearth are destroyed by Fi’s unfaithful and deceitful behavior.
It’s easy to jump off the ship at this point – Fi messed up, Liam called her out on it, and then she leaves him. Ultimately, she’s the villain, and Liam, crushed by his own actions, gouges himself in order to stop reliving the past. The dissolution of their marriage is due to an inversion of the sexual spheres; the feminine becomes sexual, the masculine marital. However, this viewing of the episode selectively ignores the essential undertone of Fi’s infidelity: Liam. Actions within a marriage never happen in a vacuum, but are effected equally by both partners, most likely due to a lack of communication. Fi’s infidelities are easy to write off as her wrongdoing, but ultimately Liam is perhaps just as responsible for the events as is Fi. The previous fight over Dan, another of Fi’s exes, is mentioned briefly throughout the episode, highlighting that the wounds from this fight are perhaps still fresh. Unwilling to listen to Fi earnestly because he is deeply doubtful of her narrative, Liam shuts Fi out. Conversely, because Liam is unwilling to – or perhaps unable to – accept the truth, Fi is forced to lie to Liam in hopes of mitigating the situation. Their relationship is within its last throes because there is little truthful, earnest communication between them. They exist around one another in a way which is impossible to sustain, and we see this in their marital bed, reliving the past in order to escape the banality of the present.
My final thoughts bring Jonas back into the question. Liam goes to visit Jonas because he, at this point, is aware of Jonas’s history with Fi. Remembering and replaying Jonas’ comments at the dinner party about replaying his memories and pleasuring himself to images of the past, Liam visits Jonas at his house in order to confront him about the memories he had been saving – and perhaps rewatching – of Fi. This is what leads Liam to confront Fi about her infidelities within their marriage; Liam sees a painting which he had bought Fi in the visualization of Jonas’ Grain, signaling that she had been unfaithful during their marriage. The sharing of memory in this scene is important, because it serves a sight of control for Liam. The digital memory of the Grain allows Jonas, Fi and Liam to individual revisit the past for their own sexual arousal and fulfilment through the objectivity of the visual media of digitized memory. Liam’s actions in this scene, forcing Jonas’ to delete all memories of Fi lest he gouge out Jonas’ Grain himself, is incredibly important towards characterizing Liam’s masculine domination of his wife. Because objective, digitized memory represents something far more real than subjective, organic memory, Liam is trying to control ultimately the way his wife’s image is understood and consumed by her past lovers. By forcing Jonas to delete his memories of Fi, Liam is effectively saying that only he is allowed to enjoy his wife as a sexual entity, echoing back to the institution of marriage which Liam seeks to represent. Yet, when we are talking about the past – and at this point in the episode, we are — who is Liam to police the rememory of his wife by her lovers? In implicitly saying “I’m the only one allowed to see you as a sexual creature,” Liam is ultimately making his wife’s sexuality, and well as her history, ultimately relational to his own. She is not allowed to have a sexual past, although he, for some reason, is. As Fi’s husband, Liam is ultimately the only person able to unlock her sexuality, and the fact that someone else has served that purpose, and perhaps still does, infuriates him because it calls into question his role in her life, outside of strictly “husband.” It is an existential, masculinist crisis; despite seeing his wife as a person, her very existence, and her memory, and her image, ultimately are possessions for only his consumption.
The black at the end of the episode speaks volumes the myopic way that Liam has chosen to live his life, blinded by a masculine predilection to self-doubt, but also a foolish and monolithic understanding of what marriage really means. Aware that his relationship is dying, Liam finds himself breaking it further in the process of trying to fit all the pieces back together. The black at the end of the episode in response to gouging himself is both a physical blindness/deafness, allegedly in relation to the ocular and auditory relationship of the Grain, but also a metaphorical, self-inflicted liberation from digital memory. Unable to reconcile his own self-doubt, and finally beginning to see that he is equally responsible for his failing marriage, Liam gouges himself in order to free himself from an obsessive reliving of the past. Although his organic memories will linger – because we aren’t told if the mind still produces them or not – he will never again see or hear the past as vividly and harrowingly as the Grain allows. Removing the Grain is in this case a form of excising what really is a malignant growth of the body, a form of spiritual surgery whose intended goal is some semblance of recovery, albeit it at a terrible, unfortunate cost.
I want to do more close readings of popular media like television and music, mostly because I find that these forms of media are far more accessible than books. Although I do enjoy analyzing novels, I do not think that literature itself is the only thing worth studying at all. Part of doing the work of decolonizing academia is undoing not only popular notions which dictate that visibly subaltern subjectivities belong only to academic niches and therefore do not contribute to mainstream intellectual thought, but that there are only certain forms worthy of academic discourse, a notion which is chuck full of classism. Popular media is becoming more and more relevant towards understanding the everymen of the world, and literary scholars must keep abreast of this, lest the discipline fall even further into cultural obscurity.