Mortal Compact

The true subject of Black Mirror is not so much technology (“what if phones, but too much”) as derealisation, the absence or suspension of the real. Each episode’s technological MacGuffin acts as a quasi-magical means by which some index of the real is effaced or diverted, usually to melancholy effect. The absence of a limit brings relief, exultation or a giddy sense of possibility, which is soon replaced by anxiety as the familiar parameters of human existence start to shift and dissolve. Some episodes stage this in a spirit of resignation as pure bathos or tragic irony, while others work to reaffirm human agency under the new conditions. These are both modes of humanist storytelling, which characterise the human in terms of experiential limits such as “love” and “mortality”: the ties which bind. Few Black Mirror stories meet Frederick Pohl’s criterion for a “good science fiction story”, that it “should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam”. Rather than imagining the social ramifications, at scale, of plausible technological change, they imagine universalised human subjects losing and recovering their humanity through the intervention of supernatural forces: luminiferous magical artefacts and all-knowing (yet exploitably fallible) AIs.

The recent Striking Vipers episode offered an exemplary derealisation: what if fully-immersive virtual reality video games could lift the bar of sexual difference, offering heterosexual consummation — a “transcendent” coupling of effortlessly-performant male and female avatars — to a same-sex couple, a pair of male friends engaging in the common pastime of facing off against each other in a two-player fighting game? What if sex could be simultaneously like play-fighting — a competitive demonstration of virile prowess, as straightforward as a game of squash — and fully pornographic, the flawless re-enactment of an image-repertoire? The Striking Vipers X video game offered its antagonists a heterosexual relationship regulated and enabled by the male homosocial bond: free from anxieties about performance, about how one is seen by the other; free from the toils of domesticity, the negotium of living together.

The story itself strongly disavowed any homosexual component to this relationship: in the real, the fighting/fucking partners cannot kiss (but can still fight, the only form of intense physical intimacy allowed between straight men). It’s tempting to read against the grain for a nascent queerness — what’s going on with the man who relishes his embodiment as the female fighter, who waxes lyrical about the symphonic pleasures of female sexual enjoyment? What’s going on with the man who enjoys fucking his friend? But we should also try taking the story at its word: what if there is nothing queer happening here at all, but rather a nihilistic apotheosis of heterosexuality? These are men who desire, very specifically and very exclusively, the idealised fucking of idealised men and women. The real of sexual difference is effaced when they are enabled to manifest this ideal without having to encounter or negotiate with any woman’s desire or lack of it. What could be more heterosexual than that?

The episode’s title, “Striking Vipers”, works on a couple of levels. First of all, it’s a reasonably plausible name for an orientalised fighting game. Secondly, it’s a nob gag - two snakes “striking” at one another, suggestive of a kind of penis-jousting. But “striking” is also the refusal of labour: both men become limp-dicked in real life, their “vipers” declining to perform, as they disengage from the nexus of responsibilities to which their heterosexual identities have committed them. If there is any “queer” aspect to the fable, it is to be found in this decommissioning of straight manhood: fucking each other in pornographic simulacrum is one way for these men to abolish themselves as socially-effective beings.

In the end, normality must be restored: the female partner of one of the pair makes a bargain, allowing him a strict ration of gaming/fucking nights, effectively assigning to these the status of a “boys’ night out”, a scheduled and regulated reprieve. She, in return, gets her own “night out”, re-opening the door to the possibility of sexual adventure. The technology, as always, is a vanishing mediator in the renegotiation of the terms of a small number of interpersonal relationships. It turns out that the pornotopia of immersive VR doesn’t lead to an anything-goes explosion of erotic possibilities — including fucking a polar bear (one of the game avatars) — but to a slightly modified compact between desire and responsibility.