I experience a fleeting feeling of freedom whenever I go to the grocery store. It offers me a reprieve from the stress and anxiety that creeps up on a daily basis as I worry about deadlines approaching or what I’ll do next after I finish graduate school. And then there’s always the peripheral flutter of unending concerns about issues that most people are able to accept as out of their control––rampant deforestation; rising PH levels in the ocean; increasingly endangered coral reefs, polar bears, and countless other species; the 50 million people in the U.S. who experience food insecurity; the factory workers in third-world countries without decent rights or wages making my clothes; the innocent victims of wars perpetuated by military-industrial complexes; the staggering racial injustice of the U.S. prison-industrial complex…the list literally could go on forever.
It’s no wonder that I get in a rut sometimes as I encounter more staggering statistics and tragic stories. I tend to feel debilitated in these moments when I must confront the fact that I’m just one individual who does not have the time, talent, or resources to combat all evil at once, and so it will be time calm down. So I go out of doors and, when it’s too cold to appreciate nature, I will go to a grocery store looking for comfort food, clearing my head by distracting myself with, ironically, more stacks of stuff.
It’s not a habit I’m proud of and that I want to remediate, and so the first thing I have to do is understand it. It seems to me that what is tantalizing about the experience of shopping is the ability to exercise some kind of control through the act of consumer choice. Perhaps as someone who constantly feels like her life is barely under control, the ability to swipe a card to pay for stuff somehow is empowering, inevitably stemming from the sordid allure of ownership. But of course it’s only a temporary feeling. Once the chocolate bar is gone, it’s back to square one, and I then realize I don’t own the things that I buy: the things that I buy own me…
It’s not very often that one can turn to a network television show in order to illustrate just how vice-like global capitalism’s grip is on everyday life, at least in any way that’s meaningful, yet this is exactly what I have recently discovered in USA’s new show Mr. Robot. Its main character, Elliot, is a genius hacker who suffers from social anxiety and craves world revolution. Although he works as a techie at a cybersecurity firm to pay the bills, in his free time he hacks into the various accounts of people he suspects to be petty criminals and, like a digital Batman, anonymously tips the police or blackmails the evil-doers into righting their wrongs if he stumbles across illegal or immoral conduct. But what the entirety of the show is predominately about is Elliot and a group of other hacker individuals known as “fsociety” who are attempting to do the impossible: completely overthrow the corporate overlords, redistribute the wealth entirely, and usher in a new era freed from the systemic acts of injustice perpetrated by the greed of the excessively wealthy.
It would be impossible for me to summarize here even just the main plot points of the first season, and at any rate what I want to talk about is the second episode in particular in which Elliot grapples with the question all progressively-minded millennials like yours truly battle with daily: Do any of our choices really matter? At this point in the show, Elliot has already been inducted into fsociety but remains timid and wary of the revolutionary candor of its leader, Mr. Robot, who has proposed that their next exploit involve blowing up a facility where all of the crucial servers for E Corps (also derogatorily referred to as “Evil Corps”) are located. The problem with the plan, like so many violent acts of rebellion, is that the destruction from the blast would also inevitably entail the deaths of many people in the town adjacent to the facility, something Mr. Robot insists is merely a price they have to pay for the revolutionary cause. Elliot refuses to endanger the lives of innocent civilians. Mr. Robot rolls his eyes. He tells Elliot that in life, like in computer code, there are people who are “ones” and people who are “zeroes”––people who act vs. people who don’t; heroes vs. cowards. Elliot shrugs him off in the moment but clearly remains vexed as he attempts to return to a normal life. While sitting through a therapy session in which he usually remains silent, when asked how he’s feeling Elliot uncharacteristically decides to oblige his therapist’s request for specifics by launching into a slow, melancholy monologue:
How do we know if we’re in control? That we’re not just making the best of what comes at us and that’s it and trying to constantly to pick between two shitty options… Coke and Pepsi. McDonald’s or Burger King. Hyundai or Honda…It’s all part of the same blur, right? Just out of focus enough. The illusion of choice. And half of us can’t even pick our own cable––our gas, electric, the water we drink, our health insurance. Even if we did, would it matter? Our only option is Blue Cross or Blue Shield. What the fuck is the difference? Aren’t they the same? Nah, man… Our choices are prepaid for us. A long time ago…
What’s the point, right? Might as well do nothing.
This is not an unfamiliar attitude; articles are written about millennial malaise more and more these days as moments of activism like Occupy Wall Street rear their heads for an exciting moment only to dissipate and the status quo continue. Scholars have weighed in on the cause of hesitation among young people like Elliot who know that injustice exists but nevertheless believe there’s little to nothing they can do about it. There are many explanations, primary among them the fact that fear and anxiety is at an all-time high for millennials for whom “student debt is at its highest” with a “fear of unemployment and poverty” as a result. It’s no wonder America’s youth is afraid of challenging the establishment when what they’re worried most about is putting food on a table for one. I myself have suffered from similar fears, although my own therapy via career counseling has begin to allay some of my anxiety about entering soon into “the real world”––but the fact that I, and so many others, need reassurance is telling in itself. My counselor has told me time and again “I wish you would be more confident.” I wish I could too.
What Elliot expresses above and continuously throughout Mr. Robot is an implicit awareness of existing within what the critical theorist Jean Baudrillard called “simulacra”–– that is, when “reality” disappears as it is subsumed by the models or maps that seek to not only represent reality, but to overtake it, in effect becoming “hyperreal.” What was once the representation of reality becomes reality, and this then means the two cannot be separated nor distinguished from one another. We no longer travel, for example, without consulting Google Maps. In fact, we locate ourselves in relation to this digital representation of streets and addresses to the point that we can no longer navigate without it; the little red pin on the map and the actual place are one and the same. When Elliot laments that the choices we make are “illusions” already predetermined for us, he is expressing the anxiety of living within simulacra wherein “we are confronted with a precession of simulacra; that is, the representation [that] precedes and determines the real.” How many of us choose to deviate from the path determined by GPS or feel anxious when we seemed to have taken the wrong turn? We only go where maps will lead us. Ergo, Elliot’s comment that, in reality, our options are limited and so is our power, which is the reason why Elliot concludes that one “might as well do nothing.”
Yet because we are implicated in a system, there is no choice that can be made that will not impact another person somewhere in the world. If Elliot decides to “do nothing” and let the corporations continue to exist with impunity, he will likewise have agreed to others’ lives be negatively affected when he had the option (as his therapist reminds him) to do something. Contrary to Mr. Robot’s dismissal of his moral compass, Elliot’s fear of hurting others in the pursuit of revolution is a real fear that should be taken seriously, for it is the quintessential dilemma for people of conscience throughout the world who are painfully aware and wary of the fact that their actions will inevitably affect someone, somewhere, somehow. For example, in the election season right now, though I am a die-hard supporter of Bernie Sanders’s campaign, I nevertheless wonder what might happen if we tax Wall Street speculation so ruthlessly. Will they move their operations elsewhere to countries whose government’s have abysmal labor laws, thus exploiting potentially even more third-world workers than we already do now? The answer seems to me to be, honestly, “Maybe.”
In fact, there are infinite possibilities when it comes to the consequences of our actions, which is what makes the precautionary contemplation of worst-case scenarios cease to be useful after a certain point, especially when it inhibits further action. In Absolute Recoil, Slavoj Žižek discusses the notion of “radical acts of freedom,” which he insists “are possible only under the condition of predestination” wherein we “know we are predestined, but we don’t know how we are predestined, i.e., which of our choices is predetermined,” and yet paradoxically it is in “this terrifying situation in which we have to decide what to do, knowing that our decision is decided in advance, [which] is perhaps the only case of real freedom, of the unbearable burden of a really free choice––we know that what we will do is predestined, but we still have to take a risk and subjectively choose what is predestined” or, if considering the “simulacra,” what is predetermined (68).
Oxymorons are popular in critical theory, as is staring gravely into space.
The beauty of Mr. Robot and critical theory is that it forces us to see our incessant anxieties about the efficacy or consequences of our own actions as ultimately ones that come from fear of our own freedom. To run in the other direction, to “do nothing,” or to do what is safe or neutral, inevitably perpetuates the violence that, today, is mostly hidden from us as the simulacra distorts the reality lying just underneath its veil. The question of whether or not anything we do actually “matters” often comes from the fearful question, as it does for Elliot, that what we will do will matter in harmful way. While the simulacra may predetermine the parameters of our reality, it does not mean we are without power to intervene.
Which leads me back to my own initial questions for my blog series as I wrap up my time with Metathesis this month: Do they “matter,” the messages popular culture send us? Do we need to spend our time deciphering texts or television shows for hidden ideologies? Why should we keep English departments around? Why bother with critical theory? With the help of Mr. Robot, I’ve come to the following conclusion: To be able to decipher cultural “codes” is itself a kind of hacking. It is a project that when done seriously, and with the intention of changing the world, has real power just as Elliot does so long as he chooses to recognize it. There is one crucial difference though: Whereas not all of us have the gift of deciphering code and understanding complex data, we do have the gift of thought and critical thinking. The most tantalizing belief of our global capitalist, “post-modern” world is that our choices do not matter, a belief that prevents thinking too much out of fear of futility––i.e., “What’s the point, right? Might as well do nothing…”
But if there’s one thing critical theory teaches us it is that what is “true” is not objective, nor is it relative, nor is it a given. What is “true” is tied to power relations and therefore to systems that create logics. If all there is, then, is power, and if we are here to empower the disempowered, then that must mean we have to begin to interrupt the program to bring a more important message and, most importantly of all, not be afraid to. We are in control of more than what we choose to eat or wear, maybe more in control than many of us want to admit. But if that’s the price we pay for our freedom, might as well do something.
Liana Willis is a second-year English M.A. student genuinely interested in all branches of critical theory, but in particular traditional Marxist and neo-Marxist cultural materialisms. When not teaching, reading, consulting, or writing, she can be found somewhere nearby discreetly practicing yoga asanas and wishing she could be sleeping right now.