Mr. Robot: reality, identity and system

Serial (identity) issues

Serials, the daring ones, can mirror the new millennium idiosyncrasies. Tv series are a relevant cultural product of the consumer society and highlight its nightmares and hopes.
With this column I wish to propose an interpretation of tv series as Mr Robot, Sense8, The man in the high castle, Black mirror etc. focusing on the relationship between system and individual, identity and communication, perception and reality, testing among others the hypothesis that system and its related communication contribute to shape the subjective perception of reality and individual identity.

 

The tv series Mr. Robot1 presents a system which abrades reality and identity. With this article I wish to investigate the relationship between identity and consumerism in the dystopian capitalistic system proposed by the series and to consider the possibility of identity-emptying connected to these elements.

 

Individual identity at the time of prepaid choices

 

“Mr. Robot,” a psychological thriller […], hacks into some of today’s biggest problems and fears: Cyber threats. Rising wealth disparity. Mental health and youthful rebellion2.

 

It seems appropriate to address the theme of the threat to individual identity which is caused by the illusion of choice, provided by the habit of consumption. First however, it is useful to briefly analyse the main character.
Elliott3 is a young and skillful programmer who suffers from hallucinations and spends most of his spare time hacking acquaintances´ computers and framing criminals (as a day job he works in an IT security company). In the first few minutes (eps1.0_hellofriend.mov) we can get quite a clear idea of the character.
For starters, he greets us (Hello friend), expressing a mild concern about his mental health as he is speaking with a nonexistent entity (igniting doubt at the same time with the reality of the viewer) The series opens in an intimate dialogue with the audience, making us an accomplice and confidant of the main character and introducing the theme of real vs. unreal, which will culminate in the monologue of the season finale.
Secondly, Elliott reveals to us a top secret information: there is a conspiracy, a group of men who rule the world (The top 1% of the top 1%, the guys that play God without permission4) and who are now following him.
Finally we see Elliott facing Rohit, the owner of a chain of cafeterias who manages online trafficking of child pornography material. Elliott discovers the trafficking and wants to report it to the police, but instead of managing everything from the computer as he would normally do, he decides to meet Rohit face to face. He then carries on a dialogue that gives us some important information: Elliott’s dad died of leukemia because of supposed exposure to radiation in the company he worked for, but it was impossible to prove. When the police arrive, Elliott exits the cafeteria saying: That’s the part you were wrong about, Rohit. I don’t give a shit about money5.
In the system displayed in Mr. Robot, a dystopia in the end not too distant from the actual reality, money and debt appear to sustain a society that deals with a crisis of value, an affirmation that I don’t give a shit about money assumes a revolutionary tone.

 

Going back to consumerism and identity, in the second episode (eps1.1_ones-and-zer0es.mpeg), during a section to the psychologist, Elliott clarifies his point of view:

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. Trying to constantly pick between two options. Like your two paintings in the waiting room. Or… Coke and Pepsi. McDonald’s or Burger King? Hyundai or Honda? Hmm. It’s all part of the same blur, right? Just out of focus enough. It’s the illusion of choice. […] In fact, aren’t they… aren’t they the same? No, man… our choices are prepaid for us, long time ago6.

Here there is an opposition which involves identity and its absence (a false consumerist identity). The individual is surrounded by false choices through which the system forces him to build his image, his subjectivity.
In Consuming Life Bauman states that “Consumers’ ‘subjectivity’ is made out of shopping choices – choices made by the subject and the subject’s prospective purchasers; its description takes the form of the shopping list. What is assumed to be the materialization of the inner truth of the self is in fact an idealization of the material – objectified – traces of consumer choices” (Bauman, Z. 2007, p. 15).
Consumerism and its choices erode the inner truth of the individual, making the identity shift towards its absence which has the form of the shopping list (‘I am a person who wears Calvin Klein, who watches Netflix, that does the food shopping at Eataly’).
This issue, already addressed in Fight Club (Fincher, D. 1999, adapted for the screen from the novel by Chuck Palahniuk), is impelling in the society of consumers and it involves the personal sphere. Tyler Durden7 and the narrator8 (protagonist with an indefinite name) deal with this topic in a bar, just after the apartment of the narrator blew up, just before starting the fight club:

Tyler Durden: Right. We’re consumers. We are by-products of a lifestyle obsession. Murder, crime, poverty. These things don’t concern me. What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy’s name on my underwear. […] The things you own end up owning you9.

This issue doesn’t stop at having an adequate wardrobe or attitude for an office job or a night out in city center: the pre-paid choices of the consumerist logic infiltrate in the very heart of identity becoming totalitarian. Marcuse writes in One-Dimensional Man:

In this society, the productive apparatus tends to become totalitarian to the extent to which it determines not only the socially needed occupations, skills, and attitudes, but also individual needs and aspirations (Marcuse, R. 1964, pp. XV, XVI).

“Pre-paid choices” offer to the individual-consumer an illusion of identity (resulting from purchasing decisions) which endangers a real identity that fades more and more and is difficult to communicate. What the subject decides to wear, eat, consume, doesn’t stop at the surface but influences his desires and modifies his necessities forcing him to spend time and energies to plan and make purchases never sufficient or definitive.

“In most descriptions”, states Bauman, “the world formed and sustained by the society of consumers stays neatly divided into things to be chosen and their choosers; commodities and their consumers: things to be consumed and the humans to consume them. In fact, however, the society of consumers is what it is precisely because of being nothing of the sort; what sets it apart from other types of society is exactly the blurring, and ultimately the effacing of the divisions listed above” (Bauman, Z. 2007, p. 12).

The question is: if the subject deemed as a consumer spends his active time working to gain money which he will need to purchase consumer goods, if he invests a percentage more or less consistent of his spare time wishing, planning and making purchases, if he bases his own non verbal communication (his image, his look) on his purchases, if he spends part of his verbal communication for the purchases he has made or will make, how much time and how much energy are left to nourish and communicate an identity that lies outside of consumption?
With this in mind it doesn’t seem excessive to state together with Bauman that in the society of consumers the difference between commodities and their consumers is nullified.

Helplessness and solitude in the society of consumers

In a society which cancels the difference between commodities and consumer, the protagonist stands out for his difference.
Elliott is sincerely uninterested in money and in consumer goods, but not just that: in a dystopia within which the individual loses his identity, and with it the capacity to communicate it (and vice versa) there becomes a youngster trapped in his own hallucinatory world, who is able to act. The mental illness becomes a way out from the system : Elliott and F. Society are successful, not despite the hallucinations of the protagonist, but thanks to them. Alienation is necessary to see the system with clarity and to act within it. Writes Marcuse:

“The intellectual and emotional refusal “to go along” appears neurotic and impotent” (Marcuse, R. 1964, p. 12) and “Solitude, the very condition which sustained the individual against and beyond his society, has become technically impossible” (Marcuse, R. 1964, p. 74).

Mr. Robot reinterprets these concepts operating an overturn: it is precisely the neurosis that allows the refusal “to go along”, it is the feeling of helplessness that allows Elliott to break away from the consumer logic and attack the financial heart of the system. Furthermore, the main character is aware of his solitude but decides to avoid a normal social behavior (as having a Facebook profile or attending a birthday party in a pub). Elliott tells the viewer:

Sometimes I dream of saving the world. Saving everyone from the invisible hand, one that brands us with an employee badge. The one that forces us to work for them… The one that controls us every day without us knowing it. But I can’t stop it. I’m not that special. I’m just anonymous. I’m just alone. […] I hate when I can’t hold in my loneliness10.

Solitude and helplessness characterize the personality of the protagonist, who actively reflects upon both. Solitude deepens the identity theme while helplessness opens the tv series to issues linked to the society of consumers. Through Elliott the series offers the viewer a focus on the particular and another one on the universal while the plot unifies these elements and shows a solitary and hallucinated character who can effectively challenge a financial giant.
Rami Malek said in an interview for The Wall Street Journal:

The show approaches these grand themes about the constructs of who we are as individuals and what we coalesce to be as a society. It definitely explores a lot of questions that people are dealing with at the present moment. Just how technology is toxifying our relationships as human beings and the lengths people will go to change the society they live in11.

The modernity of the tv series lies in exasperating the characteristics of the society of consumers and of the individual-consumer. The main character stresses the human desire and perhaps the human necessity of being an individual, and precisely due to his incapacity of communicating his own self he can be understood and taken as an example by the viewer who finds in Elliott his own issues, his own communication disabilities.

Mr. Robot may have found Evil Corp’s bug, but he didn’t find mine. That’s the only way to protect myself. Never show them my source code. Close myself off. Create my cold, perfect maze where no one can ever find me12.

The source code is the heart of a software. When he plans on closing himself off and never showing his source code, Elliott tries to protect himself from human interaction. It’s human interaction, however, which is intertwined with Mr. Robot’s and F. Society’s objectives (a cyberattack to a financial giant with the aim to cancel the debt), that engages Elliott emotionally, yet fails in healing his solitude or his sense of unreality of society, which become explicit in the final monologue of Mr. Robot:

Is any of it real? I mean, look at this. Look at it! A world built on fantasy! Synthetic emotions in the form of pills, psychological warfare in the form of advertising, mind-altering chemicals in the form of food, brainwashing seminars in the form of media, controlled isolated bubbles in the form of social networks. Real? You want to talk about reality13?

The hallucination (Mr. Robot), that justifies its own existence to the main character in function of the unreality of the world, summarizes the themes of the tv series: reality, identity and system, linked to the totalitarian logic that is imposed by consumerism.

Pre-technological and technological modes of domination are fundamentally different” states Marcuse in One-dimensional man, “as different as slavery is from free-wage labor, paganism from Christianity, the city state from the nation, the slaughter of the population of a captured city from the Nazi concentration camps. However, history is still the history of domination, and the logic of thought remains the logic of domination” (Marcuse, R. 1964, p. 142).

In Mr. Robot’s dystopia there is a financial domination linked to debt, managed by a small group of men that “play God without permission.”
The protagonist, hunted by an unbridgeable solitude, builds an identity linked to hallucinations with whom he can communicate. It is these hallucinations that allow him to overcome the feeling of helplessness towards the system (voracious, which crushes with debt and through corporations the individual aspirations) and to act through Mr. Robot and F. Society.
The main theme of the tv series is as follows: the individuals and their relationship with system, identity and communication, their solitude and helplessness mirror the actual society and the individual-viewer, who is trying to challenge a tired model constituted by consumerism and consumer. Thus, when at the end of the first episode Mr. Robot addresses Elliot to recruit him, he is partially addressing the audience as well, invisible eye towards which all the characters’ efforts are direct:

You’re here because you sense something wrong with the world. Something you can’t explain. You know it controls you and everyone you care about. Money. Money hasn’t been real since we got off the gold standard. It’s become virtual. Software. The operating system of our world. And, Elliot, we are on the verge of taking down this virtual reality14.

English version edited by Amy Scarlett Holt

 

Bibliography

  • Bauman, Z. (2007): Consuming Life. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Eyerly, A. (2015): Wealth disparity, hackers and cyber threats in ‘Mr. Robot’. Los Angeles Times.
  • Jurgensen, J. (2015): ‘Mr. Robot’ Star Rami Malek Dives Into a World of Paranoia, Addiction and Illusion. The Wall Street Journal.
  • Marcuse, R. (1964): One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press.

 

 

  1. By Sam Esmail, broadcasted for USA Network on the 24/06/2015.
  2. (Eyerly, A. (2015): Wealth disparity, hackers and cyber threats in ‘Mr. Robot’. Los Angeles Times) http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/tv/la-ca-st-tvpreview-robot-20150531-story.html
  3. Interpreted by Rami Malek
  4. Episode 1: eps1.0_hellofriend.mov[00:00:31,099 – 00:00:36,136]
  5. Episode 1: eps1.0_hellofriend.mov [00:06:14,668 – 00:06:20,443]
  6. Episode 2: eps1.1_ones-and-zer0es.mpeg [00:35:45,442 – 00:37:10,441]
  7. With Brad Pitt starring Tyler Durden.
  8. With Edward Norton starring the narrator.
  9. Fight Club: [00:30:06,050 – 00:31:16,740]
  10. Episode 1: eps1.0_hellofriend.mov [00:19:32,599 – 00:20:25,152]
  11. Jurgensen, J. (2015): ‘Mr. Robot’ Star Rami Malek Dives Into a World of Paranoia, Addiction and Illusion. The Wall Street Journal http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2015/07/15/mr-robot-star-rami-malek-dives-into-a-world-of-paranoia-addiction-and-illusion/
  12. Episode 3: eps1.2_d3bug.mkv [00:15:41,323 – 00:15:58,339]
  13. Episode 10: eps1.9_zer0-day.avi [00:45:02,745 – 00:45:29,353]
  14. Episode 1: eps1.0_hellofriend.mov [00:45:08,499 – 00:45:42,852]

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Elisa Emiliani
Elisa Emiliani graduated in philosophy with a Master's in Semiotics (with a thesis titled The communication of the concept of death in the ICT society). She's from Bologna but lived in Turin, then following the passion for communication and informal learning she lived and worked in England and now she is in Spain for a year of volunteering. Up to date she published two novels and another one is on its way, on internet there are some short stories of hers, but mostly she takes care of the cultural blog Maledetta Tastiera and tries out new narrative experiments.