Last week, real-life Mr. Robots hacked San Francisco’s rail system to give thousands of riders free rides through the glossy playground of what a dear friend calls the Google Babies: tech economy fortunates who transformed SF from a proudly dirty queer/alt/boho haven to a Bubble city.
Bubble, bubble. Toil and trouble.
Another campus shooting last week reinforced that Millennials have grown up not only with bubble economies serially bursting. But also with both an Obama-era expansion of rights and radical NRA-funded constriction of them. Their birthright a vigilante domestic terror state in which our rights to a safe public sphere are spectacularly violated all the f-ing time, especially if we are black, women, LGBTQ, children, students, or anyone in the vicinity of a gun. Which is a lot of anyones.
Recently we binged anew on Rory Gilmore, one popular character who captures the essential Millenial contradiction of a smartypants raised to seize the world but growing up to find it increasingly un-seizable (although grrrlfriend really ought to be better at the freelance hustle after 10 years positioned to pwn the gig economy. She had a debt-free Ivy League degree, experience editing the Yale daily newspaper, and a job covering the Obama campaign: Palladinos, you seriously f-ed with our girl. And you betray an offensive lack of interest in how her life may have actually turned out given the privileges you saddled her with at the very premise of your damn show, and given how much some of us may or may not have unwisely invested in a story about a smartysmartypants, perfectionist girl in a nontraditional, mom-led family.) Gilmore Girls was always about the psychological impacts of a life spent maintaining the bubble of wealth, not that the revival did much more than flirt with this theme.
In this context, I watched both seasons of Mr. Robot. The show reminded me that before it labeled a demographic juggernaut, “millennial” referred to apocalyptic endtimes. Times seem pretty endy lately, no matter how often Obama protests otherwise.
The particular techno-Robin Hood heroics of the story focus on freeing the masses by eliminating debt. Because most of us are not Rory Gilmore. I’m hard-pressed to find a more paradigmatic expression of millennial anxiety and aspiration: freedom = freedom from debt.
But if Mr Robot truly portends millennial anxieties then the kids are not all right. At all.
You probably know the plot: Genius hacker Elliot Anderson conspires with his sister and a few lovably prickly rag tags to erase all debt held by conglomerate E Corp/”Evil Corp.” Tortured genius dude committing ethical genius crime. BUT he also struggles with a MENTAL ILLNESS, yall!
I’ve noted before here, and it’s something I’d write more scholarship on were I still an actively scholarly scholar, mental illness has served as a narrative crutch for character depth in our recent cultural productions.
And when mental illness is used as a character trait, a few different readerly problems emerge:
- Diagnosis. A reader may overinvest her focus on diagnosing the character and verifying accuracy of the depicted illness.
- Representation. A reader who experiences that illness may dislike the way it is depicted in her favorite technonoir thriller/rom com/dramedy/cooking show.
- Symbolism. A mental illness in fiction functions as both a character’s lived experience and a metaphor in the work, cycling back to the representation problem.
Mr. Robot is enough of a variation on the “genius with emotional problems” theme to be interesting, if only because his illness, dissociative identity disorder, is both rare and fascinating. The show apparently skirts around the first two problems by depicting DID with accuracy and empathy.
But #3 is a landmine. DID, unlike schizophrenia, is not biologically based, and does not respond to medication. Conventional & narratively intriguing talk therapy is the appropriate treatment. This setup enables fun plot points like:
- Elliot hacks his therapist and her cheating boyfriend!
- Elliot creates an abusive alter ego in the form of his dead dad, who acts with the hard-hearted, masculine conviction he never could!
Accurately depicted features of DID also allow his therapist to say otherwise fishy, outdated shit like advising Elliot to make friends with this abusive asshole alter; work with him; integrate him into his life. Merge the abusive/masculine/amoral dad figure into his pacifist, shy, principled self.
By season 2, Elliot is aware that Mr. Robot is his own hallucinated alter ego in the form of his dead father. He has constructed multiple alternate realities to better cope with his traumatic experiences. His occasional awareness of his tendency to construct real-seeming alternative realities soon gives way to a profound doubt in the reality of anything he sees.
Because Elliot is a lone tortured genius whose tortured genius hacking skills have global consequences, his inability to distinguish objective from subjective reality has lethal consequences for hundreds of people, and for civil society itself.
We have recently seen the drastic consequences of our own society’s inability to distinguish objective and subjective reality: about our presidential candidates; about climate change; about health care; about corruption; about whether or not HRC is a criminal; about Russian interventions into our democratic processes. Election 2016 made my 2010 university courses on information literacy seem like cupcakes compared to the democracy-threatening stakes of our current inability to read a fucking news story and determine if it’s actual fucking news.
Given social media insularity, my old standard definition of “objective” reality–that multiple people can agree on it, that one cannot find a factual basis for disagreement–no longer holds. Multiple people, perhaps a whole network of people, perhaps everyone that a Facebook user may encounter online, agree that HRC is a criminal. This networked consensus gives sexist propaganda the sheen of objective fact. As a society, now, we have subordinated the concept of objective fact to a dominant media narrative that belief determines the reality that matters.
Elliot/Mr. Robot, then, embodies our current epistemological crisis. And the show’s dramatic stakes have born out now, in our what-I’m-still-quaintly-calling-“objective” reality, since November 9. Every day since the catastrophic election, the stakes over what counts as fact ramp up.
Rami Malek spends much of each episode looking doe-eyed and haunted, his physical and emotional fragility a cipher for our own vulnerability to institutional powers. Indeed, by the end of season 2, the international corporate/state kleptocracy seem to be winning.
They’ve used the elimination of electronic debt to impose ever-worsening strictures onto the 99%. They’ve gobbled up the resistance–by allowing Chinese dissidents to kill some, by bribing others, and by good ol’ freckled FBI capturing the rest. Garbage piles up on the streets, vigilante gang violence explodes unchecked, and people who’ve paid their bills can’t prove it and face criminal prosecution. Chinese hackers track everyone’s movements and gun down former allies.
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Friend/love interest/likely betrayer Angela tells Elliot with apparent conviction, “We can’t beat them.” Indeed, they don’t seem beatable.
Conspiracy stories have always been used to impose control over unimaginably chaotic social and economic forces. Conspiracy stories channel fully nihilist conceptions of non-agency into merely fatalist ones.
Now, more than ever, we need to believe in our own agency. We need to believe a tortured hacker genius and his loveable loner allies can outsmart the kleptocracy controlling us. We need to believe that allies will stay loyal, that expertise matters.
We need to believe that our paths will not forever be paved with garbage.