Bilingual Activities

‘The Entire History of You’ and The Frankfurt School

This post is the first under a new category called ‘Bilingual Activities‘. My aim is to illustrate some philosophical themes using TV series and films, so that the students improve their vocabulary and, if possible, start a fifteen-minute debate. Any mistake you find, I’m the only one to be blamed.

Suggestions and comments will always be much appreciated.

Black Mirror, S01E03, "The Entire History of You".

Black Mirror, S01E03, “The Entire History of You”.

The Entire History of You‘ is the third episode of Charlie Brooker‘s ‘Black Mirror‘. All episodes are about the side-effects of Technology, so each one of them is perfect to use in the classroom while teaching Philosophy of Science and Technology. Politics, love or self-consciusness are topics that have been transformed by technological innovation. ‘Black Mirror‘ offers a critical point of view about these changes. The ‘Black Mirror‘ in the title is about how the screens have invaded our ordinary life.

The story is set in an alternate reality where most of the people have an implant behind their ears that records everything they do, see or hear. It’s called the ‘Grain‘. Anyone can play his/her memories either in other people’s eyes or on a big flat screen. This process is called a ‘re-do‘.

Liam, an insecure young lawyer, suspects his wife Ffion has had an affair with Jonas. Fi and her old gang get together at a dinner party hosted by Jonas. Fi‘s comments and laughter when Jonas is around make Liam become more and more suspicious about the kind of relationship Fi and Jonas still have. After the party, Liam gets really drunk and spends the night searching for the truth using the ‘re-do‘. The next morning, he questions Fi until she loses her temper. He drives to Jonas’s house and threatens to cut the ‘Grain‘ out of his neck unless he deletes all the sexual footage involving Fi. Jonas complies, but Liam realises that they had had sex eighteen months ago, when his daughter was conceived. Fi admits to cheating on Liam and they break up. The closing scenes of the chapter show Liam wandering alone in his house. He misses his wife and daughter and blames the ‘Grain‘ for what has happened, so he decides to go ‘Grain-Free‘.

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Black Mirror, S01E03, “The Entire History of You”.

There is nothing new about this kind of story. It’s just another one where jealousy makes people go mad.  However, it’s rather interesting to focus our attention on how technology changes the way people live and relate to each other.

Dialectic of Enlightenment was published by Horkheimer and Adorno in 1944. It is the central work of the Frankfurt School.

The central thesis of the first essay, “The concept of Enlightenment,” is that “myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology”.

“Myth is already enlightenment” to the extent that the ancients sought to control the natural world. Through the mythic offering of sacrifices, for example, they would barter with the gods to gain control over them, and, thereby, a hostile and threatening nature.

“Enlightenment reverts to mythology,” conversely, to the extent that it fetishizes its own products. It was Weber’s thesis that in disenchanting the world, reason becomes “formal” or “purposive” in nature – that is, relegated to calculating the best means to the ends sought, but unable to determine the ends themselves. Reason, in other words, serves any pre-rational end, since it cannot determine substantive ends.

Progress is achieved by the denial of nature in man for the sake of domination over non-human nature and other men. This dynamic is probed by Adorno and Horkheimer within the context of their discussion of subject formation in Homer’s Odyssey. Accordingly, with every adventure, Odysseus, who Adorno and Horkheimer describe as “a prototype of the bourgeois individual”, preserves his newly won subjectivity at the expense of his own internal nature, external nature, or other human beings. For example, in the episode with the Sirens, whose “call of nature” is both the beckoning of natural happiness and the death of subjectivity, Odysseus plugs the ears of his oarsmen so that they cannot hear the call of happiness, and has himself bound tightly to his ship’s mast, where he can listen to its call, but cannot act upon it. Such are the relative fortunes of the working class and bourgeoisie within modern society, in which myth, domination, and labor are entangled. The idea of self-denial in the name of self-assertion is made even clearer, since it is made more literal, when Odysseus confronts the Cyclops Polyphemus. Cunningly, Odysseus escapes Polyphemus by referring to himself as Udeis – which rhymes with Odysseus, and in Greek means, quite literally, “no one” – for when Polyphemus screams that Udeis has blinded him, there is no reason for other Cyclops to come to Polyphemus’s aid. By renouncing himself as a self, in other words, Odysseus affirms himself, a point that he egoistically pauses to make to Polyphemus while escaping, which costs the lives of his oarsmen.

Finally, in their critique of contemporary culture, “The culture industry: Enlightenment as mass deception,” Adorno and Horkheimer argue that culture, once viewed as a retreat in an otherwise profane commercial world, has been entirely assimilated by that world – hence the term “culture industry,” which once would have been perceived as an oxymoron. Culture is no longer designed to perform the function of enabling what must now be called its “consumers” to think against the dominant currents of thought, but rather is designed to do its consumers’ thinking for them, thus precluding the possibility of potentially subversive ideas.

David Sherman: ‘Critical Theory’ in The Blackwell Guide to Continental Philosophy.

Answer the following questions:

  1. The airport security is enhanced by the ‘Grain‘ but the cost is, in my opinion, too high. Before taking a plane, Liam has to make a ‘re-do‘ of his last 24 hours in front of a stranger. Since George Orwell‘s 1984, the way we feel about security cameras has changed a lot. Twenty years ago we all cared much more about freedom than security, but after 9/11 attacks, it seems to me that we are all ready to give up our privacy in exchange of extreme security. Which current technological advances work in our reality the same as the ‘Grain‘ works in Liam‘s?

    vlcsnap-2015-11-29-10h44m49s518

    Airport security is enhanced by the ‘Grain’

  2. Remember when the ‘Grain-Free‘ girl calls the police to report that Liam is about to cut Jonas‘s throat. The person at the other end of the line asks her to make a ‘re-do‘ so that she can be trusted. In Liam‘s world nothing that hasn’t been recorded is taken for real. I think we rely so much on smartphones that this scene is not surprising at all. How did you feel when you saw it on the screen for the first time?

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    ‘Grain-Free’ girl is not trusted

  3. I think one of the most brilliant scenes of ‘The Entire History of You’ takes place when Liam and Fi are making love but hooked on a ‘re-do’ of their old sex experiences. What’s the difference between that kind of sex and pornography?

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    Liam and Fi hooked on a ‘re-do’

  4. Liam is a violent, extremely jealous, guy. Fi is a liar and cheats on Liam. Jonas is a womanizer. Which character do you identify with the most?

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    Jonas, Liam and Fi

  5. Do you think social networks like Facebook or Instagram could become in the near future the same as the ‘Grain‘? What about Google Glasses or the Apple Watch?

    The 're-do'

    The ‘re-do’

  6. Do you think that ‘The Entire History of You” is a good example of what Horkheimer and Adorno say in Dialectic of Enlightenment – that is, in our modern democracies reason becomes formal in nature, relegated to calculating the best means to the ends sought, but unable to determine the ends themselves? Except Helen, everybody else accepts the Grain and give up their freedom. Why is that?

    Theodor-W-Adorno-and-Max--008

    Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer

  7. Technological progress is achieved by the denial of nature in man. Control over Nature comes always with a more repressive culture. Any ideas?

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black mirror

Black Mirror (Charlie Brooker, 2011-)

‘Black Mirror’

  • Genre: Science fiction.
  • Created by: Charlie Brooker.
  • Country of origin: United Kingdom.
  • Original language: English.
  • Number of episodes: 7.
  • Executive producers: Charlie Brooker, Annabel Jones.
  • Running time: 43 – 75 minutes.
  • Production company: Zeppotron.
  • Distributor: Endemol UK.
  • Release: Channel 4 (2011-2014).

S01E03, ‘The Entire History of You’.

  • Directed by: Brian Welsh.
  • Written by: Jesse Armstrong.
  • Original air date: 18 December 2011.
  • Running time: 44 minutes.
  • Cast: Toby Kebbell – Liam Foxwell, Jodie Whittaker – Ffion Foxwell, Tom Cullen – Jonas.

Resources

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Thanks to Adolfo Tomé for his support and enthusiasm.

Thanks to Javier Curiel for remembering me how great ‘Black Mirror’ was.

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