Friday, December 12, 2014

15 Million Merits: The Commodification of Outrage

Note: It is awkward to write about Black Mirror (now on Netflix).  The first episode is among the crassest[1] most desultory bits of film I've seen.  I don't recommend it.  I recommend skipping it, actually.  But the series isn't serialized.  Each 60 minute show is a self contained work of short fiction.[2]  But the second episode was one of the best things I've watched in a long time.[3]  I'm writing about the second episode (15 Million Merits), and it is impossible to write about without spoiling.  So this piece assumes you've seen it.  You can find it on Netflix or in its entirety on YouTube:

(Spoilers below)

Fifteen Million Merits is a sweet, innocent story of two young people trying to find something real and substantial in a world reduced to simulacrum.  And it keeps that light, almost cartoonish tone until the moment Lady Cybil (er. Abi) sings her earnest, movingly imperfect ballad on the talent show…and is swiftly offered a lucrative place in the burgeoning porn industry.

The powers enslave Abi, distilling and commodifying her beauty into something salable and sad and thin.  The episode could have ended there.  It would have fit the tone of the series, and the theme.

But no.  The narrative counters with a montage,[4] as the protagonist sets out on a rescue mission of sorts.  Bing, is motivated, we suppose, either by love or by justice or by some other noble sentiment we do not bother to define precisely, but cheer.  This redemption narrative sets up the actual, more devastating reveal.

While we can easily imagine the commodification of physical beauty, we did not suspect justice or love might be quite so vulnerable. 

But the three judges are very good at their jobs.  They immediately see what we could not.

Outrage is a commodity.  Anger creates celebrity.  The story argues that the moral distinction between the pornographer and the prophet is fuzzy, both are profitable diversions, stimulating our nervous systems to provide ‘bait’ for our indentured labors.

Just like beauty, which starts out pure and real, then distilled and monetized by a ‘service industry’ for its neural signals, the stirrings of justice can be redirected to create desired brain states.  The denunciation of diversion becomes diversion.[5]

Outrage is so often about us.  It is about our desire to feel justified, righteous, wise, to transcend the rabble to be more than the mindless masses, to assuage the guilt of the violence we are part of but powerless to subvert.  Outrage is a desired (and addictive) brain state.  It is an arousal, an appetite.  And like other forms of arousal, an industry springs up to meet the demand…and…cha ching.[6]

That’s how we get Bill O'Reilly, Nancy Grace, John Oliver, Sean Hannity[7], Rachel Madow, Glen Beck, et al. and yes, even Jon Stewart[8], when most of us find their worlds cartoonish and barren and flat, without the topography of nuance or the ecological heterogeneity of generosity for the other.

More importantly, outrage is easy.  It tears down the makings of others.  Breaking is easy.  Making is hard.  Crafting beauty or value that survives the onslaught of outrage, that persists beyond distillation of appetites, that rings true (because it is) or makes sense of our swift brief lives or tangibly serves the human experience (of particular humans) is the mandate.[9]

In my work and art and preaching, I long to be more maker than breaker.  I’d like to be good enough at these things to eschew the nervous system subsidy of commodified outrage, offering an alternative that ‘rings true’ that is constructed more of hope and joy and generosity than self justifying anger.

This post was written to the Dawes Pandora Station.[10]

Footnote on the final scene[11]

[1] Here's a spoiling summary: "A British princess is taken hostage and the only demand for her safe return is for the Prime Minister to have sex with a pig on live television.  Public sentiment drives him to do it.  A year later, it seems he's a hero, but his marriage is destroyed."  There, you are up to date. You can start with episode 2.  Incidentally,  this was very clever and artfully made, it was just felt like it was intentionally trying to ‘cross lines’ – shocking for shock's effect that underestimated me as a viewer.  The other three we have watched have been brutal and devastating, but have not made that mistake.
[2] As my end of year reading summary will show, I have gotten into short fiction in a big way (both reading and writing), specifically short science fiction.  Since science fiction is fundamentally a thought experiment, the short form is usually optimal.  I have thought more than once, ‘this story would make a great film, if it was ok for films to be 45 minutes,’ and then thought about Louie’s work and the old Twilight Zone stuff thinking that the artificial film length really limits us.  It turns out, Black Mirror was exactly what I was hoping for.
[3] And the next two episodes were both brilliant too, though they are uniformly devastating.  Black Mirror’s thought experiments are uniformly dystopic, in understated ways, but is darker and rings truer for casting a modest but hardly livable sentence on human technological futures.
[4] Which, if it hadn’t been the second episode, I would have known to distrust.
[5] As does denunciation of denunciation of diversion…the ‘irony’ (AIHCTBK) is not lost on me.
[6] There’s a pun for you. 
[7] This guy is my least favorite.  I tried to watch him in a hotel twice, and just couldn’t do it.    My first draft called him John Hannady.  So I can’t claim a lot of knowledge, and my caricature might be unfair and is based on unflattering Stewart clips, but I put the risk of him not belonging in this paragraph at ‘low’. 
[8] Stewart gets a pass so often because he’s genuinely likable.  And, to his credit, he interacts with larger conversations, something we like to call, ‘books’ in a way almost no one else does.  But while I agree with his content 60-70% of the time, his rhetorical tricks are often sleight of hand, converting outrage (lazy outrage, outrage that requires simultaneous entertainment, which makes him something of an artistic savant) into advertising dollars.
[9] At the heart of my theology of work and art is that when Genesis says we were made in the  image of God, that the context suggests that  we were ‘made makers.
[10] Seriously, have you heard “A Little Bit of Everything” – Brilliant -
[11] Unrelated, to the essay: The final scene shows him looking out a big window to a rain forest vista.  The popular position on the internet seems to be, ‘the outside isn’t real, it’s just an upgrade on the simulacrum.’  I have an unlikely alternate hypothesis.  I think ordering society into an economy of energy production and consumption of electrons, made society sustainable.  This little dystopia was the way we ‘saved the planet.’  It might have been a televised illusion, but what if an isolated world of self generated entertainment and sustenance is the only way the rest of the world heals.  We inflict violence on each other in our own little ecosystem, to restore the rest of it.  This would add another level of moral complexity to the story, sacrificing humanity (so to speak) to save the rest of the biosphere.

And then there’s the penguin statue, which is a metaphor for the conversion both Abi and Bing experienced.  Bing 'upgrades,' his penguin totem converting something ephemeral but real into something sustaining, reproducible, and false.  Grasping at the ephemeral, and destroying it in the attempt to generalize it, and sustain it.

1 comment:

Justin Bower said...

I like the conceptualization of outrage as a commodity, specifically. This post says much more eloquently what's been rattling around in my head a bit. Especially lately with the upsurge in outrage across the much of it seems such a waste of useful energy. I have mostly refrained from saying anything, but part of me wants to say "yes, get mad, get outraged, but DO something with it. Outrage that just gets posted on Facebook is useless, and devolves into self-indulgence." I like the turn on the horrendous maker/taker argument...I think your maker/breaker is much more relevant to the divide in the country.