BY Aaron Schuster in Opinion | 11 DEC 15
Featured in
Issue 176

A Bug in the System

The new TV series Mr. Robot sees capitalism and schizophrenia through the mind of a hacker

BY Aaron Schuster in Opinion | 11 DEC 15

Mr. Robot, 2015 .Courtesy NBC Universal / Amazon Prime

Capitalism and Schizophrenia – an old fashioned idea? When Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari published their two-part magnum opus, comprising the polemical Anti-Oedipus (1972) and the more serene A Thousand Plateaus (1980), they seemed to deliver a double message: not only is capitalism driving us mad, but it is in madness that we might find some kind of redemption from a world ruled by money and labour.

The most recent popular expression of this idea appears in the first season of the TV series Mr. Robot (2015), created by Sam Esmail, which tells the story of Elliot Alderson, a disturbed yet talented cyber-security expert who joins an elite hacker cadre bent on taking down the system – in this case, the massive conglomerate ‘E Corp’ (universally referred to by the show’s characters as ‘Evil Corp’). Our anti-hero is inducted into the Anonymous-esque group ‘fsociety’ by Mr. Robot, who is eventually revealed (spoiler alert!) to be Alderson’s dead father, a projection of the hacker’s own broken mind – the ‘bug’ in his subjective code.

The season ends with a highly satisfying spectacle of Leftist wish-fulfilment: billions of dollars in debt are effectively wiped out by a computer virus inserted into Evil Corp’s servers by fsociety, provoking a worldwide financial crisis. In the final episode, Esmail uses actual footage of world leaders responding to the 2008 crash; here, however, the chaos has not been caused by banks but by a small vanguard of digital vigilantes. According to an oft-quoted idea first expressed by Fredric Jameson: ‘It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.’ Mr. Robot presents an original variation of this thesis. What is difficult to envisage today is not so much the end of capitalism, but that the upheaval would result from collective action. The revolution will definitely be televised, but will it be a popular event or the work of a lone, messianic Mr. Robot? If one of the inspirations for the show, as Esmail has said, was the Arab Spring, it also reflects disappointment with these uprisings and loss of faith in the power of mass movements. The show is a simultaneous testament to Leftist enthusiasm and melancholia.

Mr. Robot undoubtedly owes a great deal to Fight Club (1999), with its split-personality hero and debt-eradication plot, yet there is something original in the way Esmail articulates the show’s themes, especially that of loneliness. Elliot suffers from extreme alienation and despair; he connects to other people mainly by hacking them and keeps a CD-ROM graveyard of their hacked profiles, disguised as cds. The show is narrated by Elliot’s inner voice, which, in the third episode, muses on the concept of the ‘bug’. According to him, it’s not merely an error to be rectified, but something possessing a life and reason of its own: ‘A bug is never just a mistake, it represents something bigger […] an error of thinking that makes you who you are.’ It would be worth pursuing this ‘philosophy of the bug’, which hints at a wayward salvation. Deleuze spoke of the ‘grain of madness’ that is the individual’s saving grace, even as it derails his or her life, and turns the self that harbours it inside out. This touches on an interesting theoretical problem: what is the relationship between your own private bug, the grain of madness that separates you not only from other people but also from yourself – in Elliot’s words, the glitch, the primal mistake that ‘makes you you’ – and the hyperconnected isolation of everyday capitalist reality, the populous solitude of the lonely crowd?

After the show’s schizophrenic first season, we can probably expect a swing toward paranoia in the second. While the focus will likely be on Elliot and Tyrell (the aspirational executive who helps Elliot execute his master hack), the most intriguing character is Whiterose, a transgender woman who heads the Chinese hacker collective, Dark Army. In the last scene of the season finale, she appears disguised as a gentleman financier exchanging world-ruler pleasantries with Evil Corp CEO Phillip Price. There is a striking parallel between the couples Elliot and Tyrell and Whiterose and Price: the schizo paired with the capitalist, the rebel with the establishment figure. But the trouble with pop-cultural depictions of schizophrenia is that they often end up being all too ‘normal’: two characters are revealed to be conflicting sides of the same person. Whatever is distorted, delusional or maladapted ultimately serves a nicely balanced Aristotelian plot. But what if, instead of a simple case of split personality and its attendant Oedipal dramas, Elliot himself were to be a personality fragment of Evil Corp’s CEO, who is nothing but a servant of the anonymous rule of Capital, a mere node in its mesh of transactions and algorithms, drives and derivatives? In discussing the mutation of traditional despotic authority effected by capitalism, Deleuze and Guattari wrote: ‘“I too am a slave,” – these are the words spoken by the new master.’ (Anti-Oedipus) The key question is: how do we aesthetically depict this anonymous power – the power of what the Marxist tradition calls ‘real abstraction’ – and its hold over our lives?

Aaron Schuster is a writer based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. His The Trouble With Pleasure: Deleuze and Psychoanalysis is published by MIT Press in February.