Ideological State Apparatuses in “Fifteen Million Merits” (2011)
University of California, Los Angeles
Citation: Kennelly, Kate. “Ideological State Apparatuses in “Fifteen Million Merits” (2011).” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 21, 2019. doi:10.20415/hyp/021.e02
Abstract: The second episode of the British science fiction series Black Mirror, “Fifteen Million Merits” (2011) depicts a futuristic world virtually imprisoned by digital screens, where citizens are awarded “merits” for watching mindless, spectacle-flooded entertainment. Its portrayal of humans whose social essence and legitimacy depend on this consumption makes “Fifteen Million Merits” all too reflective of today’s accelerating technological landscape, which has become what Louis Althusser would call one of society’s most effective ‘ideological state apparatuses.’” This GIF essay, completed as an entry for Professor Veronica Paredes’ Annotated Series of GIFs Assignment, combines clips from “Fifteen Million Merits” with citations from Althusser’s structural Marxist essay, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” It aims to show how the episode’s digital world, where ideology is diffusely packaged as entertainment, echoes Althusser’s pessimistic premise of a capitalist state able to non-coercively control citizens and eliminate opposition.
Keywords: film analysis, ideology, social media, GIF, media studies, student work.
Ideological State Apparatuses in “Fifteen Million Merits” (2011)
Around forty years before the Black Mirror episode “Fifteen Million Merits” (2011) appeared with its hyper-digital dystopia, Louis Althusser had reached the peak of his philosophical pessimism with “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” (1970). Althusser’s essay was prescient in its description of “mature capitalist social formations” that deploy their power more through the lures of ideology than through direct repressive force (17). “Fifteen Million Merits” depicts a high-tech world powered by human cycling, where compliance is ensured through a monetary and ideological system of digital points/merits earned 1.) by endless pedaling on exercise bikes and 2.) by streaming mindless entertainment on society’s ubiquitous screens. At the center of this pervasive digital apparatus is the talent show Hot Shot, which offers citizens―at a price of fifteen million merits―the chance to escape their slavish existence through instant celebrity. Its “beautiful lies” (Althusser 23) are exposed, however, when Bing Madsen (Daniel Kaluuya) gets his friend Abi an audition hoping her singing talent will be discovered, only to watch the judges arbitrarily slot her onto the porn show WraithBabes. Afterwards, when Bing goes on Hot Shot to blast its hollowness and cruelty, Althusser’s contention that there are no truly free subjects within ideology is ironically confirmed, as the judges applaud Bing’s tirade and offer him a show on one of their channels, ultimately absorbing his resistance into the very system he’s denounced.
Althusser holds that every social formation guarantees its survival by reproducing: 1. the productive forces (i.e. the workers) and 2. the existing relations of production (i.e. workers’ submission to the established order) (Althusser 2). Sustained by humans pedaling on exercise bikes, the digital world of “Fifteen Million Merits” reproduces submission to the system (and by extension, the productive forces) through a merit scheme in which citizens are rewarded digital points for consuming mindless entertainment (i.e. reality shows, video games) while they exercise.
“In the vast majority of cases,” writes Althusser, “subjects ‘work by themselves,’ inserted into practices governed by the rituals of the Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs).” On occasion, however, there are “bad subjects who provoke one of the detachments of the Repressive State Apparatus (RSA)” (35). The world of “Fifteen Million Merits” generally secures compliance through various perks and titillations (i.e. game shows, video games, digital points, porn), but when Bing tries to tune out WraithBabes, the screens/walls of his room turn red, an alarm goes off, and his entertainment system orders him to resume viewing.
While emphasizing ideology’s “imaginary transposition and distortion” of reality, Althusser rejects the Marxist equation ideology = false consciousness as overly simplistic, as well as the idea that ideology’s smokescreens are predominantly sustained by “a small number of cynical men” who “enslave people’s minds by dominating their imaginations with a falsified representation of the world” (23-24). In “Fifteen Million Merits,” this hyperbolized clique of villains would be the hosts/judges of the Hot Shot talent show who instill false consciousness by concealing citizens’ reality and appearing to offer them escape from their tedious servitude through “fair/deserved” recognition of talent. Yet, Althusser would argue that the truly insidious nature of Hot Shot lies in its structural mechanisms, which elastically maneuver to incorporate rebellious subjects as mere performances in the ISA’s spectacle―as seen in the next GIF.
After Bing appears on Hot Shot and unleashes a scathing criticism of the Fifteen Million Merits system, his attack is ironically swallowed up by thunderous applause from the judges, who offer him “his own special slot” on one of their channels, where he can deliver the same superbly vitriolic speeches. Althusser’s cynicism permeates this scene that reveals an ideological apparatus in which subjects “are stripped of all freedoms except freely accepting their submission.” Seemingly interpellated by the judges as a “free subject” (i.e. someone who will be given the right to express his views), Bing is in fact being prompted to “make the gestures and actions of his subjection all by himself” (Althusser 35). His rebellion, in other words, is neutralized, as he accepts the judges’ offer to have his anti-establishment diatribes broadcast as consumable, corporate-owned (and ultimately innocuous) recitals of rage.
The walls of Bing’s bedroom are a visual metaphor for the emptiness of the episode’s central ideology―that of a technologically advanced “utopia” where citizens are self-sufficient and sufficiently sated/soothed by virtual spectacle. As Bing “pulls up the blinds” of his bedroom, the simulation of sunny farm pastures and windmills―satirically harkening back to a preindustrial time―abruptly dissipates to reveal nothing but a black screen. This “timeless,” flickering idyll recalls Marx’s concept of ideology as “pure illusion and dream,” emptied of concrete history and reflective of humans’ tendency “to make themselves an alienated (imaginary) representation” of the world because the reality of this world is itself alienating (Althusser 21-24).
Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes towards an Investigation.” Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, 1971. Translated by Ben Brewster.
Brooker, Charlie. “Fifteen Million Merits.” Black Mirror. 2011; London, United Kingdom: Endemol Shine UK, 2011. Accessed on Netflix.