The Future of Two Presents

The “black mirror” of the title is the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone. –Charlie Brooker

At first, these initial days of the COVID-19 world seemed like a rip-off of the Netflix series Black Mirror. Apparently, Black Mirror’s world has no characters of color, so to speak; it is a “racially egalitarian” nightmare, while the COVID-19 pandemic is definitely not egalitarian. It is unsettling. Fictionally, Black Mirror supposes that raciality would dissipate with the full digitalization of existence, the culmination of the kind of power Deleuze saw displacing disciplinary power, in the late twentieth century, namely, the ever-changing, always-operating, password-protected social form that accompanies the business economy. In reality, the pandemic seems to have created a perfect racial storm, aided by many weeks of voluntary house arrest leaving many—mostly, but not only, the younger ones—ripe for rebellion. The stream of killings of unarmed Black persons immediately after we had finally been told that the new virus was infecting and killing a disproportionate number of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people set the stage for wide-scale rebellion. The last straw was the release of cell phone videos of George Floyd’s public execution by Minneapolis police officers.

Thinking about it now, it seems that Black Mirror speculates on the future of a different present. Not the present of the one in which we live but of the one of some twenty years back, when the expansion of the human rights agenda to include women, Indigenous people, and people of color appeared to be realizing the image of the human—of dignity as an ethical principle that presupposes and protects the multiplicity that makes up humanity’s particular kind of unity.

Let me put it another way. Welcome to the (digital) future of two different (analog) presents!

Or, if I am to put it in Deleuzian terms (rehearsing his version of the (analog!) centuries-old modern philosophical predicament): this future collapses the human as in who counts (Foucault’s subject of disciplinary power and Sylvia Wynter’s Man2) and the human that is counted (Deleuze’s “dividuals” and masses, samples, “banks”).

Less enticingly, perhaps: humanity and raciality jointly governed the political architecture of the twentieth century, in which both figurings of the human served as basis for juridical domination and economic expropriation, but also for denial of and claims for justice. In the first half of the century, raciality (in the anthropological text) did both figure the intrinsic multiplicity said to be characteristic of humanity and serve (ethically) for justifying capital’s imperial inroads in Africa and the Asia-Pacific. In the second half, the fundamentally violent character of raciality (e.g., US Southern states’ violent repression of the Civil Rights’ movement’s non-violent actions and the COINTELPRO’s repressions of the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, and other direct-action oriented groups) was exposed and Black liberation was added to the Cold War’s measures that supported the ideological war with the USSR. The century is over, but the figurings of the human that oriented it seem to be here to stay. At least for the time being, it seems.

Both humanity and raciality prevail in this dystopian digital future. Each seem to continue to work as planned and, as expected, their workings become explicit when they happen to cross paths. Humanity and raciality meet in the abstractions (lines, curves, scenarios, maps) that capture the population as a statistical composite, but only because Sars-CoV-2 mirrors the human as a species (to use Spivak’s term—Marx’s “Species Life”). That figuring replaces the qualitative (historically achieved transcendentality) singularity of the human with a quantitative (scientifically determined) generality. As such, this generality lacks precisely the attributes that testify to humans’ singularity: namely, dignity. Each person only counts as a potential casualty (infected, recovered, or dead), a digit to be added to the graph of confirmed cases, one which has the possibility of either joining the dead or the non-dead column. Is this a signal that Deleuze’s control society has displaced disciplinary power and its dichotomies? After all, these abstractions are the product of other abstractions and, as experts repeat on TV, are just predictive models, probabilities. Thirty years later, now, it may have become evident to many that Deleuze’s image was partial, that it missed something. Something that many still miss even as raciality cuts through COVID-19 numbers, adding other abstractions that qualify its deaths. For it brings in bodily (underlying conditions) and economic (essential services) configurations that indicate which persons are more likely to be contaminated and which persons, once infected, are more likely to die from this new disease.

What I am suggesting is that even as the human seems to have become a number and, in a way, realized the nightmare that modern, mostly German philosophers sought to avoid (here I am thinking of Herder, Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger) as they sought to infuse “meaning” (culture, spirit, intention, the question of being) in the cold walls of the empire of scientific reason. It seemed, at first, that COVID-19 had finally given the human dead (glassy) universality (“we are all in it together”), as its numbers pay no attention or militate against—actually as commentary on lockdowns always refer to the mental health costs of isolation—that which ensures its singularity, namely interiority. At the same level of abstraction, including the electronic transmission of the murder of George Floyd, raciality recalls how human beings do not exist (live and die) in this world in the same way. No matter how many rights have been won (and some of them have also been lost along the way), this future does not seem to follow that present, Black Mirror’s past, and its celebrated human rights gains. After all, transcendentality seemed to govern that present, as it was claimed that dignity did extend to every human being, and hence that their rights should be recognized, protected.

If that is the case, how to think of this now in regard to that other present, that is, as Black Mirror’s future?  Each Black Mirror episode seems to lament precisely how our increasingly electronically-mediated existence militates against dignity. (Even the unexpectedly tender episode “San Junipero” leaves a bitter-sweet feeling, with the contemplation of the afterlife of a love story unfolding in an electronic box.) Each story seems to tell us of the in/dignity of having one’s body or mind controlled by codes. It is indeed Deleuze’s world come true. Three episodes are specially of interest to my point here: “Fifteen Million Credits” (FMC), “Nosedive” (ND), and “Black Museum” (BM). All three, generally speaking, focus on what I will call visualizibility: “Fifteen Million Credits” features young men and women pedaling stationary bikes for a living; that is, to get the credits that people use to pay for things, and which they are coerced into using to buy entertainment; the only way out for them is to become entertainers themselves. “Nosedive” is the tragicomic story of Lacie who sees her dream of becoming an “influencer” evaporate exactly as she tries to increase her likability by serving as bridesmaid for a frenemy. In “Black Museum,” a daughter releases the memory of the last moments of her father’s life after his death in the electric chair—a memory which had been captured in an electronic device designed for sharing mental content. Each of these episodes figures a reversion in which electronically-mediated interiority renders the person an object, the phenomenological experience shift in that it is not about one seeing and being seen (visibility) in the world. It is about being see-able (visualizability) in a self-curated way, a self-production facilitated by mediating codes designed for extracting and selling attention. In “Fifteen Million Credits,” the characters spend most of the day cycling and then go back to their rooms alone and are forced to watch and be watched on TV, and attention to one another is mediated through avatars on screen. In “Nosedive,” there is presence, but it is mediated by the phone screen and the reputability scale that forces everyone to try and please those of higher scores. In “Black Museum,” the machine transfers “content” from one brain to another. That is, attention turns into consumption of someone’s mind. All three episodes portray an allegedly racially democratic dystopian world inhabited by humans in various degrees and moments of in/dignity. Highly superficial, in this world a person’s value is tied to how they appear (phenomena), and not what they are (noumena). That how is measurable, comparable: quantitatively in terms of having enough credits to consume (“Fifteen Million Credits”), reputability score (“Nosedive”), and qualitatively through the possibility of having one’s consciousness consumed (“Black Museum”). Fully in/dignified humans, in Black Mirror’s world, are willingly mediated by gadgets that extract and market their interiority: feelings, desires, pains, fears, memories.

Is raciality at work here? Definitively yes but, because this is the future of that other present, it is not in the ways immediately recognizable due to the absence of exclusion (or discrimination) or the use of stereotypical non-white characters. Not unexpectedly, Blackness figures throughout metaphorically, by default, as in/dignity, when humans accept living through codes and machines (represented by the shattered black cell phone screen) that render them (at once laborer, raw material, and instruments of production) objects for consumption. Humans who, while generative of value, do not fit formulation of wage labor as the commodity which, unlike use-values, is productive of exchange value. Or put differently, in the terms Marx did not theorize, when considered as a type of laborer, such humans fit the description of the slave. More insidiously, however, Blackness functions here indirectly through the implied use of slavery as a metaphor. That the screen is black is just as well. Enslavement here operates at the existential level (economic, juridic, affective) through a voluntary gesture that obtains it, namely, the desire to be visualizable—hence liked, followed, retweeted. Once again, raciality (through the use of Blackness as a metaphor) allows for the articulation of difference with/in the (transcendental) ethical concept of humanity, which it usually does by indicating which one of the multiplicities it encompasses has dignity. However, in Black Mirror’s world, raciality does not point to distinct kinds of human beings, but it signals a difference in/of the human itself, which is its loss of its singularity (dignity).

Though Black Mirror’s dystopia differs from Sars-CoV-2’s—both are futures of different presents—both dystopias share the kind of abstraction (with the combined effect of universalization and dis-individualization) that renders the impact of digital technology and of the novel virus visualizable. Nevertheless, they differ in terms of raciality’s mediation—of how it names groups of person, those who do not count and are killed or are let to die by the virus or who do not make themselves count. That difference is also telling of how the strands of twentieth-century philosophy that inform our critical work—such as Deleuze’s and Foucault’s, and also Marxism, for instance—have little to offer for any analysis of the political architecture of the global present precisely because of their incapacity to see how raciality plays out in what is described as human demise in Black Mirror, which is the loss of one’s dignity. The connection is not really that difficult to trace: in/dignity (and the in/difference it supports) has been the main effect of raciality as an ethical construct. In/dignity is what plays out in recent decisions—weighing the health of the economy against the health of (some sectors of) the population—that resulted in preventable high numbers of infections and deaths in the US, Brazil, and the UK.

Let me put it differently: the kind of critique that shares Black Mirror’s present is blind to racial subjugation, in particular to Black subjugation precisely because it cannot see itself as black. That black screen is presented as also the disappearance (invisibility) of the human in the code that allows for visualization, but that black screen, as a metaphor for enslavement, is also a reminder that much of the work of Blackness as a tool of power has been to render an effect of nature (a datum) the very past Black Mirror recalls (slavery) in its rendering of a future in which capital lives off humans’ (as raw material, workers, and instrument of production) bodies and spirits. To repeat, without the naturalizing effect of Blackness and other tools of raciality, the notion of human dignity would not have ruled the late twentieth-century ethical text, nor would it be possible to offer a critique of capital that does not attend to coloniality and raciality as integral and necessary for its accumulation.

Social and mainstream media’s shots of protesters holding up their phones taking selfies to be posted on Instagram or TikTok make me wonder if the two presents have finally merged in an anticipated future happening right here in the streets, as so many all over the world have joined in protest demanding that Black lives matter. Perhaps the fires (in Minneapolis this time) burned off the liberal layer constitutive of our critical tools (in particular historical materialism) to expose racial subjugation right there at the very foundations of the modern political architecture, where it operates by calling forth the mechanisms and tactics of the colony, namely total violence. Or perhaps humanity and its presumed white monopoly of dignity has been abstracted and formalized to in/difference and this now is a moment when not even the dead are safe (to quote Benjamin). Or it could be the case, to end on a somewhat positive note, that a major reconfiguring of the political is at work—but it may take a generation or two for it to become explicit. In the meantime, the ashes will cool and however it all settles, let us make sure that material and immaterial, presential and virtual, expressions of solidarity multiply and last. Let us make sure that, even if only a few more of those with underlying conditions (such as conquest, slavery, or present mechanisms for racial subjugation, or being currently displaced or occupied due to capital’s local wars) finally find themselves, as much as anyone can, well and safe.

Denise Ferreira da Silva

Denise Ferreira da Silva is professor and director of The Social Justice Institute (The Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice) at the University of British Columbia. Her research areas include critical racial and ethnic studies, feminist theory, critical legal theory, political theory, moral philosophy, postcolonial studies, and Latin American and Caribbean studies. She is the principal editor for the Routledge/Cavendish book series Law, Race, and the Postcolonial (with Mark Harris and Rashne Limki).