“The Illusion of Choice”: Forced Freedom in Mr. Robot and Late Capitalist Society (30 October 2015)

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.

robot1 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.


Enough said.

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.


Changing The World From Within to Without: My Take on the Importance of Critical Theory (9 Oct. 2015)

The fact that there is a so-called “crisis in the humanities” is old, though persistent, news, with many theories behind its impending demise.  The main culprits are understood to be funding cuts at the state and national level as well as an overall cultural shift toward valuing professional degree paths in the private sector, spurred by conservative thinkers’ critique of the humanities as a degree that leads to “nothing but unemployment.”[1] It’s an ironic position, given the fact that coexisting with this concern regarding practical employment is another dilemma the business community has recently brought to the public’s attention: a general lack of sophistication in critical thinking skills among recent college graduates, as reported recently by Doug Belkin of The Wall Street Journal.

“General lack” is probably not the best way to put it given Belkin’s mention that, according to a survey of business owners by American Association of Colleges and Universities, “nine out of 10 employers judge recent college graduates as poorly prepared for the work force in such areas as critical thinking, communication and problem solving”––a rather staggering statistic. While critical thinking skills are not only found in English or History classrooms, no one would dispute the fact that the crown jewel of an education in the humanities is the extensive training in critical thinking, whether fostered through in-depth textual analysis or in developing the argumentative prowess of a PoliSci major.  The powers-that-be would do well to reflect on this.


“They’ve redesigned the logo in the wake of funding cuts.”

Yet in terms of the humanities, even amongst those sympathetic to its aims, the popular perception of the “real” reason the humanities exists comes down not to critical thinking, but to passion––the fact that some of us have come, through the process of time, to be enamored with the great ideas of the past (and in fact, the term “humanities” emerged out of the intellectual turn from “scholasticism” to humanism in the 15th century).   As Adam Gopnik has succinctly put it, “The best way we’ve found to make sure that everyone who loves to talk about books have a place to do it is to have English departments around.”  History majors love history, philosophy majors love philosophy, and so on and so forth.  In defense of the existence of English departments, Gopkin stresses that love of literature is the raison d’etre of studying English and if there is a reason to continue supporting and not axing English departments it’s because

No civilization we think worth studying, or whose relics we think worth visiting, existed without what amounts to an English department—texts that mattered, people who argued about them as if they mattered, and a sense of shame among the wealthy if they couldn’t talk about them, at least a little, too. It’s what we call civilization.

Because we are human and because we need to feel pleasure – this is why we should continue to teach English (and philosophy and history too), not because, as Gopnik puts it, “they will produce shrewder entrepeneurs or kinder C.E.O.s.”


And also this reason.

But why not have our cake and eat it too?  Is it possible that the humanities can offer all of the above? Practical skills, attention to moral and ethical concerns, as well as plain old fun?  In fact, for centuries literary endeavors were to follow the Horatian Ode and do just that“to delight and to instruct.” In an era in which deep-reading is also as much in crisis as deep critical thinking skills, it’s important to engage with both literature and critical theory, two areas that are in fact at the core of the humanities.  Although opposites in their intentions and aims, they also complement one another.  While art and literature seek to unabashedly put forth entrancing new ideas that hope to transform its viewers/readers and their world, critical theory seeks to analyze it to pieces and, in some cases, debunk it.  As the adage goes, “Opposites attract.”

Critical theory is not the only way to teach critical thinking, but it is, in my opinion, one of the most important, given its attention to analyzing and critiquing the assumptions a society makes.  As the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy more specifically puts it, “Some of [critical theory’s] core issues involve the critique of modernities and of capitalist society, the definition of social emancipation and the perceived pathologies of society,” critiques that inhere in traditional Marxist philosophy interested particularly in Hegelian dialectics.”  (Don’t worry if you don’t know what the hell I mean by “Marxist philosophy”––we’ll get to that later…)


What she said.

For the month of October though, I’m not going to go into the history of critical theory or solely summarize the concepts of some of its most influential thinkers (You’re welcome.)  Instead what I want to talk about and to demonstrate is the importance of critical theory, not for academics or undergraduate students, but for people, plain and simple––that is to say, critical theory on a personal, rather than purely “academic,” level.  Why? Because I believe the most exhilarating power of critical theory is its ability to allow us to discern the structural forces that act upon us as individuals, its ability to reveal the inner workings of life and destruct the monolithic force of our everyday understanding that things are “just the way they are.” It has the incredible ability to cultivate the power of discernment––to look at the world and see through its most tantalizing lies and insufferable cajolements.  And it has the same capacity to help one see through oneself, to understand the assumptions our perspectives come packaged with.

Real people, as people, not just professionals or academics, need these skills.  Not because it will help you get a job or make you more erudite, and not even because it’s “fun,” but because, in the end, it is empowering; it can change and liberate your perspective.  As Marx famously put it, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” And to be or not to be the change we want to see in the world––that is the question.

[1] Many critics and scholars have noted that there are other factors to consider when it comes to the “crisis in the humanities” too. Heidi Tworek argues in a December 2013 issue of The Atlantic that the humanities technically lost favor in the 1980s and simply haven’t gained back its relative influence is primarily due to the increasing opportunities for women to major in subjects outside of the humanities, an attractive option for those with an eye toward gaining employment in more lucrative careers they were formerly unwelcome in.

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.

Regeneration, Rebranding, Republicans; or, Reince Priebus is not your boyfriend

In case you were camping over the last three days, the Republican Party took control of Congress on Tuesday night. To paraphrase an oft-heard line on the Capitol floor, I’m not a social scientist—so I’m not interested in the actual, complex causes of the victory. I am, however, interested in the rhetoric around the victory, particularly the conversation about Republican “rebranding.” On 2 October 2014, Reince Priebus, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, introduced the next in the cycle of what MSNBC called “A Perpetual State of Republican Rebranding”:

 Republicans will unveil a rebranding effort Thursday aimed at changing its image as a political party focused solely on obstructing President Barack Obama’s agenda to instead a champion of ideas and action.

The idea that a party is a brand suggests that voters are consumers, that politics is a commodity to be sold and bought. To think about rebranding and the rhetorical commodification of politics, I turn to an unlikely pairing: the BBC’s Doctor Who.

A little more than a month before Reince Priebus rebranded the Republican Party for the umpteenth time, the Doctor rebranded for the twelfth. A core mechanic of Doctor Who is the Doctor’s “regeneration,” his ability to reincarnate whenever he suffers serious injury in the plot—or more importantly, when the actor playing the Doctor changes. Between series 7 and 8, the 11th Doctor (Matt Smith) gave way to the 12th (Peter Capaldi), to the chagrin of many (shallow) fans who resent Capaldi’s age (he’s all of 56-years old). Though the 1st Doctor was portrayed by the then 55-year old William Hartnell in 1963, the show’s reboot saw 34-year old David Tennant and 26-year old Matt Smith change the role of the Doctor into a character surrounded by discourses of sexiness. The show itself deepened this association through romances between the Doctor and the young (emphasis on the coded-as-young) women who played his companions: an explicit relationship between the 10th Doctor and Rose Tyler (23-year old pop-icon Billie Piper), and ever-present sexual tension between the 11th Doctor and his companions Amy Pond (21-year old Karen Gillan) and Clara Oswald (26-year old Jenna-Louise Coleman).

In Capaldi’s first episode, the show rather heavy-handedly responded to fans’ ageism. The villains are ancient robots who have repaired their cybernetics with human organs for millennia in order to survive; their predicament prompts the Doctor to wonder if one is still the same individual if one replaces all one’s parts. Clara insists, “I don’t think I know who the Doctor is anymore”—and the show spends the rest of the episode berating her for it. The coldly pragmatic moral compass of the episode, Madame Vastra, castigates Clara: “He looked like your dashing young gentleman friend. Your lover even. […] But he is the Doctor. He has walked this universe for centuries untold. He has seen stars fall to dust. You might as well flirt with a mountain range.” The most telling moment, when the Doctor seems to speak directly to disappointed fans, comes at the tail-end of the episode:

The Doctor: I’ve made many mistakes. And it’s about time I did something about that. Clara, I’m not your boyfriend.

Clara: I never thought you were.

The Doctor: I never said it was your mistake.

I’m not the only one to recognize this as a gesture outside the text, but I would like to particularly call attention to that final line. The show passes some of the blame on itself: it coded the Doctor as sexy, and now, it has to step back from that.


Devotion to fans aside, capital is the core motive behind the message that the Doctor is still the Doctor even if he’s replaced all his parts. The franchise needs consumers to retain its enormous profit margin. To keep viewers tuning in (and buying commodities like my 10th Doctor Sonic Screwdriver pen), the message must be clear: we’re different, but we’re still the same; buy us.

The Republican Party has walked this tightrope for the last several years as they simultaneously cater to their base and try to attract new voters. A series of wonky and casually misogynist ads targeted women by painting Obama as a bad boyfriend, or Democratic candidates as hideous old wedding dresses that women need to cast off in favor of the sexy new Republican dress. I’ll leave out any actual discussion of the party’s thinking on race, class, and gender because in fact, as The Daily Show’s coverage of the election suggested, when it comes to branding, ideas don’t matter—money does.

This is not merely a matter of removing money from politics. When an election costs about $3,670,000,000 (writing it as $3.67 billion obfuscates the immensity of the cost), we’re talking brand marketing, not politics. Capitalist democracy gives the lie to arguments like Michel de Certeau’s theory of consumption as resistance, because here, consumption remains just that: consumption. Republicans offered a “new look, same great taste,” and voters happily purchased it. The parts are new; the Doctor is the same.

But Reince Priebus is not your boyfriend.


Peter Katz is the editor of Metathesis and a fifth-year Ph.D. student in Victorian Literature and Culture. His dissertation focuses on sensation fiction, the history of science, and the history of the novel.