Vappu Jalonen: Stained Black Mirror
1. Ether machines
As Donna Haraway writes in ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ (1991), ‘Our best machines are made of sunshine; they are all light and clean because they are nothing but signals, electromagnetic waves, a section of a spectrum, and these machines are eminently portable, mobile – a matter of immense human pain in Detroit and Singapore. People are nowhere near so fluid, being both material and opaque. Cyborgs are ether, quintessence.’1
2. Dirty machines
But twenty years later the light, portable, and mobile machines are not clean. They are stained. Human fingers swipe and tap them so that their surfaces become covered in greasy fingerprints.
Our best machines are dirty.
3. Black mirror
As European art history tells it, the black mirror had two main uses: first it – the Claude glass – was a tool for the picturesque. The landscape painters and tourists of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century turned their backs to the landscape and looked at it on the black mirror instead. It affected the light and shade, reducing and simplifying the colours, making things look better.2 According to Mr. Hamilton in a book by Uvedale Price from 1801 (as cited in Arnaud Maillet’s The Claude Glass): ‘You will then certainly allow, that the real carcass of an ox reflected in such a mirror, would lose part of its disgusting appearance, though the detail would be preserved’.3 The picturesque use of the black mirror has been compared with Instagram.4
The other use of the black mirror is a magical one. On occultcorpus.com, a contributor using the pseudonym Caliban details how to create a black mirror of one’s own: simply paint a glass frame with thin layers of black acrylic paint.5 There were different kinds of black mirrors, some convex and some flat, some made of painted glass or obsidian, and some were simply oil in a vase or ink applied to the thumb.6
The use of the black mirror varied depending on time and place. It was called the devil and the witch, the source of errors and lies, the creator of illusions, something that usurps resemblance. It was thought to show the spirits, whether evil or kind.7 A poem published in the late sixteenth century in England recorded the belief that the black mirror showed ‘things to come, present, and past’.8
Or, as Elias Ashmole, cited in Maillet, wrote in 1652, it could show ‘all the persons one wishes to see, no matter what part of the world they are in, and even if they are hidden in the depths of the most inaccessible apartments, or even in caves in the bowels of the earth’.9 The European black mirror was thought to show the far away, the future, errors, the invisible, or the spirit – something that is outside the one who looks into it. But later on, with the rise of the notion of the unconscious (and perhaps progressing optics), the focus turned inside. The black mirror was then thought to expose the desires, fears, drives, and inner feelings of the one who looked into it. The black mirror became a horrifying tool for seeing to the inner self.10
4. Blur mirror
Unlike the modern notion of the mirror,11 the black mirror doesn’t pretend to only reflect back that to which it has been turned. The black mirror is blurry and distorting. It doesn’t allow the gaze only to see the reflection but always also the black mirror itself and its effect on what we see in it. And because we see ourselves in it, it shows its effect on us. I see myself in it and I see myself by it (the blurry me). I see its effect on my reflection. And I see something else too, I see myself using it.
The secret kept revealing itself but we just didn’t notice.
I look into the depth and I see the surface. I see a stain.
A stain on the screen is a trace of the human body, if you like: the Bakhtinian grotesque body that leaks over its boundaries.12 Also, a stain is a trace of the action of the body, the body rubbing against the machine.
Of course the machine also leaves traces on the body. It produces new gestures and new abilities to point with a fingertip, tensing little muscles and tendons of the fingers and the hand, pain in new places, and new ways to perceive and think.
7. A new gesture
A nine-month-old baby of a friend lies on the floor and tries to change the pictures of a magazine by swiping them with a finger.
8. Touching a poor image
The occult black mirror is to be looked at but you should not touch the reflecting surface. The touch screen black mirror is to be looked at as well as touched. At the moment of touching a screen, a body touches also (at least most often) an image. The act of pinching and zooming an image has something special in its concreteness since an image has often been seen as only or mainly belonging to the realm of vision, not touch. And because of that, I guess, the childlike pointing of colourful icons and images can feel so lovely.
The thing that is a digital image carries something spirit-like in itself: it can be invoked over and over again, in some form and shape and to same extent, but it is in no way safe from the touch. The touch is not innocent, nor is it something that one only does with one’s fingers. Digital images are touched and messed with in ways that extend beyond fingers and hands, and sometimes don’t include them at all. To quote Hito Steyerl: ‘The bruises of images are its glitches and artifacts, the traces of its rips and transfers. Images are violated, ripped apart, subjected to interrogation and probing. They are stolen, cropped, edited and re-appropriated. They are bought, sold, leased. Manipulated and adulated.’13 Sometimes the ‘messing with’ does not include humans: the glitch can also be seen as an expression of the agency of the image itself, agency that according to Steyerl images also have, at least as potential.14 For Steyerl, a digital image is a thing that is not a shiny, immortal clone of itself 15. She calls this image poor because, rather than being about the real thing, it is about its own real conditions of existence and thus about reality.16 And what would then be more appropriate than to take a photo of yourself from where your arm can reach, copy it in bad quality, and send it to the wrong person because of the clumsiness of your fingers.
9. I’ll be your
10. The mirror story (stories of technologies are stories of gender)
In one story – a very well-known story – a vain woman looked at herself in a mirror; she looked at her face, she put some make-up on, she looked at her clothes. She got ready to leave home to be seen or she got ready to be seen at home. She watched herself in a mirror and wanted to know who was the most beautiful. She spent hours staring at her face in a mirror.
In another kind of a story, a woman was a mirror. She mirrored masculine subjectivity and desire. She was a mirror who stared at herself in a mirror. And she could only see an endless reflection of a mirror.
In yet another story a woman used a mirror as a tool. She looked at herself with her sisters who were like her. She saw herself, and in her, her sisters who were like her, saw themselves.
11. A selfie
I take a photo of my face on the pillow, the flat face of skin and gravity. I could publish it, the raw, ugly selfie. The word selfie sounds like it would only be about cuteness, hotness, and selfishness. But selfies are also fragile, raw, defiant, and dependent on others: this is an image of me in a mirror and I give it to you. Then you’ll be my mirror. There is no obligation to like but please don’t bully me.
The outer wall of the headquarters of the National Security Agency (NSA) in Maryland is a black mirror, a pixelated one. I assume that the building is supposed to look impenetrable by reflecting the outside back – as if by becoming the reflector of the outside it could become only about the outside, only a mirror for the wrongdoings of that of which it is not a part. At the same time it itself strives to become invisible, or at least mysterious, and of course enormously powerful. This is an attempt to look like a truth machine.
And in a way it succeeds. In an already almost iconic image, the black mirror of the NSA chiefly reflects the cars of the employees inside – the human labour inside this mirror-machine: observing, researching, analysing, engineering, collecting, listening, reading, cleaning, cooking, programming, and, sometimes, leaking.
13. Inert (human) life
Donna Haraway states in ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’: ‘Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert’.17
I lie on a bed, balancing my computer on my legs. I open one tab after another. I type: slash fiction, feminist sex blog, how to grow long hair, doom metal drumming for beginners. I find out that someone found my paper about clothes on academia.edu by searching the phrase ‘Sweater of University of Turku’ on Google. I love the Internet.
Suddenly, because for a while I have only been reading and not doing anything else, the screen goes to sleep. And then I see myself on the black screen, wide eyes staring at the screen: as if I were exposed; as if I had got caught being under the illusion of pure virtuality.
This can’t be seen only as an example of inert life. The new black mirror is a medium of receiving and the medium of producing – the medium of performing the self, the medium of the soul at work as Franco Berardi might say,18 the medium of networking – which Haraway in 1991 described as both a feminist practice and a multinational corporate strategy.19 This is not only inert but also productive. In fact the machine wants me to do something, all the time. We – some of us, that is – are not only frighteningly inert but also frighteningly (or empoweringly) self-performing and self-producing, the proper subjects of neo-liberalism. Since 1991 our machines and our selves have changed.
14. A truth machine
Even if we haven’t read the news about the Foxconn factories in China – for instance, the famous stories of anti-suicide netting being fitted beneath the windows of workers’ dormitories,20 or the disgusting Apple legend of Steve Jobs changing the screen of the first iPhone from plastic to glass one month before the release day and the factory workers being woken up in the middle of the night to start their weeks of overtime work with minimum pay21 – even if we haven’t heard this in detail, we know it. We know how our machines are made.
And sometimes when we watch that glass, the touch screen, the screen, the phone, the computer, the black mirror, whatever, we see not only the images and words, the virtual, the digital, the weightless, or the stain we leave, or ourselves entangled in the machine, changing with the machine, or ourselves as users and consumers, or performing ourselves, or the enjoyment and the potential, or ourselves being observed – we also see the manufacture of the machine. In the words of Sara Ahmed, we see ‘the labor that is behind its arrival’.22 We see the matter of the machine and the human bodies that made it (and some of us were the ones that made it). The materiality of the machine shows that it came from something and somewhere and someone made it. Its becoming and being is in its matter. And this is how the black mirror shows the truth: the black mirror shows itself.
There is no secret.
Ahmed, Sara, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006)
Bakhtin, Mikhail, Rabelais and His World, trans. by Hélène Iswolsky (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1968; repr. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984)
Berardi, Franco ‘Bifo’, The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2009)
Blodget, Henry, ‘Steve Jobs Freaked Out A Month Before First iPhone Was Released And Demanded A New Screen’, Business Insider (22 January 2012) <http://www.businessinsider.com/steve-jobs-new-iphone-screen-2012-1> [accessed 12 October 2013]
Bogost, Ian, Alien Phenomenology; or, What It’s Like to Be a Thing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012)
Chamberlain, Gethin, ‘Apple’s Chinese Workers Treated “Inhumanely, Like Machines”’, The Guardian (30 April 2011) <http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2011/apr/30/apple-chinese-workers-treated-inhumanely> [accessed 12 October 2013]
Dolphijn, Rick, and Iris van der Tuin, ‘Interview with Karen Barad’, in New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies (Ann Arbor, MI: Open Humanities Press, 2012), pp. 48–70
Haraway, Donna J., ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’, in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 149–81
Jurgenson, Nathan, ‘Picture Pluperfect’, The New Inquiry (12 April 2012) <http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/picture-pluperfect/> [accessed 14 September 2013]
Maillet, Arnaud, The Claude Glass: Use and Meaning of the Black Mirror in Western Art, trans. by Jeff Fort (New York: Zone Books, 2004)
Occult Corpus forum, topic ‘Creating a Black Mirror’, post by Caliban (23 June 2010) <http://occultcorpus.com/forums/index.php?/topic/20290-creating-a-black-mirror/> [accessed 10 October 2013]
Steyerl, Hito, The Wretched of the Screen (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012)
Wopschall, Cody, Cody Wopschall, ‘Apple Inc.: Severe Employee Abuse (2011)’, Business Ethics Case Analyses (11 April 2013) <http://businessethicscases.blogspot.fi/2013/04/apple-inc-severe-employee-abuse-2011.html> [accessed 12 October 2013]
As an inspirational source for this work I also wish to mention the two seasons of the television series Black Mirror, created by Charlie Brooker (Channel Four, UK, 2011–13).
1. Donna J. Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’, in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 149–181 (p. 153).
2. Nathan Jurgenson, ‘Picture Pluperfect’, The New Inquiry (12 April 2012) <http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/picture-pluperfect/> [accessed 14 September 2013]; Arnaud Maillet, The Claude Glass: Use and Meaning of the Black Mirror in Western Art, trans. by Jeff Fort (New York: Zone Books, 2004).
3. Maillet, p. 116.
4. See Jurgenson.
5. Occult Corpus forum, topic ‘Creating a Black Mirror’, post by Caliban (23 June 2010) <http://occultcorpus.com/forums/index.php?/topic/20290-creating-a-black-mirror/> [accessed 10 October 2013].
6. Maillet, pp. 57–58.
7. Maillet, pp. 47–50.
8. Maillet, p. 61.
9. Maillet, p. 50.
10. Maillet, pp. 63–64.
11. Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology; or, What it's Like to Be a Thing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), p. 31.
12. See Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. by Hélène Iswolsky (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1968; repr. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984).
13. Hito Steyerl, The Wretched of the Screen (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012), p. 53.
14. See Steyerl, e.g., p. 56.
15. Steyerl, p. 53.
16. Steyerl, p. 44.
17. Haraway, p. 152.
18. See Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2009).
19. Haraway, p. 170.
20. See, for example, Gethin Chamberlain, ‘Apple’s Chinese Workers Treated “Inhumanely, like Machines”’, The Guardian (30 April 2011) <http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2011/apr/30/apple-chinese-workers-treated-inhumanely> [accessed 12 October 2013]; Cody Wopschall, ‘Apple Inc.: Severe Employee Abuse (2011)’, Business Ethics Case Analyses (11 April 2013) <http://businessethicscases.blogspot.fi/2013/04/apple-inc-severe-employee-abuse-2011.html> [accessed 12 October 2013].
21. See, for example, Henry Blodget, ‘Steve Jobs Freaked Out a Month before First iPhone was Released and Demanded a New Screen’, Business Insider (22 January 2012) <http://www.businessinsider.com/steve-jobs-new-iphone-screen-2012-1> [accessed 12 October 2013].
22. Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), p. 201n5.