Black Mirror: The Entire History of You

Slavoj Zizek is fond of citing Jacques Lacan’s claim that a jealous husband is pathological even if it turns out that his wife truly is cheating on him. He does this all over the place (if you’ve read any Zizek, you know what I mean), but being a consummate scholar, I wanted to track down the actual Lacan reference before mentioning it in this piece. I couldn’t find it. I searched the internet, and ultimately crowd-sourced the question to friends whom I knew to have also studied Lacan. We found something claiming that it was a particular section of his seminar on Psychoses that was the reference point. I opened the text and read the portion in question, and… nope. He does mention jealousy in there, but I found myself thinking that perhaps Zizek had confabulated this supposed quote that does indeed seem like something Lacan would have said – that this was like how Gandhi never said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

I begin with this little anecdote because it involves the two themes one finds at the center of “The Entire History of You”: jealousy and memory.

Thanks to small pieces of tech known as “grains” implanted into people’s heads, the characters of this story have a digital back-up of all of their memories, unless they delete them. They can play these back for themselves internally, or on external devices, with the press of a button. The precise details of how this works are not fully laid out, but are also unimportant. We are immediately hit with a question: 1) Would perfect memory be a good thing? Do we want to remember everything, with objectivity? Or would we perhaps prefer to remember things in our own way?

Black Mirror hints at ways that this grain technology might enable a kind of totalitarian dystopia. We meet our protagonist Liam at a meeting with his employers. They mention lawsuits filed by children against their parents for bad parenting that led to lost income (in which grain footage would surely be evidence), and indicate that they want to look at his past year of life in the near future, asking if there are any significant deletions in a way that makes clear that that would be a problem. When Liam goes to the airport, shortly afterwards, the security agent asks to quickly see the previous 24 hours, and then week, before clearing him to board. And yet, it is ultimately made clear that having a grain in this world is not required by law, as we are introduced to a young woman (Hallam) at the dinner party who does not have one (it was stolen, apparently, which opens up another line of thinking the episode does not explore). The grain is a consumer product that people want. Employers might require it. Airport security might be more difficult to deal with without it. But, as Colleen says at the dinner party, organic memory is terribly fallible, and Black Mirror does well to recognize how this technology might strike any number of us as appealing. Who wouldn’t want to relive some of those past moments of joy? Or to be able to pull up the time you were introduced to someone whose name you have since forgotten?

This gets to why the episode is smart to focus on the interpersonal, rather than the socio-political, implications that such a technology would bring.

This centers on Liam’s suspicion in relation to how his wife, Ffion, acts with regard to a man named Jonas at the aforementioned dinner party. It is story about jealousy, fueled by the grain technology, as Liam replays moments from the dinner and inspects the minutiae of Ffion’s reactions. He ropes in their babysitter to ask whether something Jonas said about being faithful to his cornflakes was funny (Ffion laughed), and insists it was objectively not so. He uses the grain to show his wife telling him her relationship with an unnamed man in the past – whom he is now learning to be Jonas – was only a week, though she now is saying it was a month.

“Not everything that isn’t true is a lie, Liam.”

bm history sex

She is right, and he is wrong – regardless of the facts of her cheating on him. His jealousy is pathological. He wants the truth, or certainty, without regard to the cost. It is the relation to certainty that Lacan links to psychotic pathology in Seminar III. Most of us live within uncertainty. Perhaps we are forced to do so, but Lacan notes how we benefit from this. It creates a kind of openness, and maybe the room for hope. The jealous husband’s paranoiac drive to certainty shuts this down, and this is the central element to its pathology. It may be normal to feel jealous at times, but to be jealous; to become this sort of detective with regard to the truth of one’s suspicions – that is what is pathological.

Because it turns out that Liam does indeed find that truth. The “joke” Jonas made at the party about masturbating to old partners won’t get out of his head, and so off he goes (after apparently staying up all night drinking and replaying memories) to confront him. He attacks him, and ultimately threatens him with a broken bottle, to force him to delete everything he has on Ffion. We are shown most of this via his own grain, as he would appear to have blacked out in the middle of it, only to wake up on the side of the road having hit a tree. As he reviews the events, however, he notices something to confront Ffion about: a painting that he bought for her, which hangs above their bed.

She tells him the event occurred during a period where he disappeared for five days. We aren’t given any more information as to that, and may agree with Liam that it is no excuse. But it is his jealousy that forms the heart of the scene. He asks if he is truly the father of their child, and whether they used a condom. He insists that she show him via her grain. And, in short, he destroys their marriage in his pursuit of the truth.

Liam says that when you suspect something, it is always better when it turns out to be true. This is utterly false; particularly when it comes to jealousy. When one suspects one’s partner, perhaps intuiting their rapport with, or attraction to, another, one tends to try to deny it, or at least to push away that thought that it has, or will, lead to something beyond flirtation. To later learn there was something to it – perhaps because they begin dating this person after the two of you have broken up – is no comfort. It seems like it should be, to have the thought that at least one was right, but it isn’t. If anything, it may make things worse – maybe she never loved me at all?

2) Is the truth an end-in-itself? In what sense?

This is, after all, what is central to jealousy: not the question of truth with regard to whether sex happened, but the question of truth with regard to love. The former is a question as to the facts of what happened, while the latter pertains to truth not at the level of fact, but of faith. The irony is that to act the role of the jealous husband, as does Liam, destroys this very object of concern. It is his paranoiac jealousy, and not her infidelity per se, that wrecks their marriage, and undermines the truth of their love. If she was unfaithful in matter; he is unfaithful in spirit.

The final scene, where he removes his own grain, would seem to indicate that even he has realized this too late. He could have merely deleted memories of Ffion, but recall how he obsesses over the job-related meeting at the beginning of the episode. The grain fuels his tendency toward obsession and paranoia. This is why he removes it, even though it seems there is a good chance this will mean he loses his job on top of already having lost everything else.

To forget is a blessing. Jorge Luis Borges writes, in his short story, “Funes the Memorious,” of a young man who does not forget. Funes remembers every detail of every event, to the point that it bothers him that a dog seen from the side at 3:14pm would have the same name as the dog seen from the front at 3:15pm. He is incapable of abstraction, and thus maybe incapable of real thought. “The Entire History of You” does not present this scenario, as it presents a difference between biological and digital memory, but it does raise the question as to whether it would actually be good to have a digital back-up of our lives. It is actually a less severe thought-experiment than Funes, who seems, understandably, almost unable to live because he is so overwhelmed with detail. One has to access the grain, and can delete things, but 3) What would be lost in a world where memory became objective?

Of course, we not only forget, but have a marked tendency to confabulate. That might seem to be a bad thing, but it also helps us make sense of our lives. There is a difference between the brute facts of lived experience, and how the memories of them are fit into an overarching narrative. The more we inscribe the events of our lives in a digital space, the more we risk losing this subjective aspect of experience, which is indelibly tied meaning.


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