“Once your children are born, you can never look at yourself through your eyes any more, you always look at yourself through their eyes,” explained Hans Zimmer, when asked to discuss his approach to composing the score for the 2014 film, Interstellar, a film of whose plot he knew nothing. Zimmer’s words strikingly relate to the ways that narrative, plot, and content interact in “Black Museum,” the final episode of the dystopian Netflix series Black Mirror. Through its use of time manipulation, narrative levels, complications between story and discourse—that is, between the events themselves and the events as they are presented to us in the narrative— and more, this episode poses the question: what can narrative form tell us about the overall social and political project in which Black Mirror is engaged? In understanding the way that “Black Museum” utilizes form in relation to content, on a multileveled field, narrative theory brings to light how the project of Black Mirror involves snares and subtle revelations about society that both test the critical lens through which viewers approach narrative and makes a statement about society’s ability to take responsibility for its flaws.
Each part of the discourse, and each narrative tool used therein, builds multiple levels of narrative and produces different kinds of meaning. In his investigation into different components of fiction, “Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method,” narrative theorist Gerard Genette calls the reader’s attention to different narrative levels—the hierarchical relationship between a narrative and the events that it narrates— that exist within discourse. Genette’s theory is perhaps a better place to begin understanding the creation of time in “Black Museum” because the narrative is not only about the relationship between story and discourse as previously understood in narrative theory, but also about a more abstracted level that exceeds the bounds of narrative. The text of “Black Museum,” the discourse that orients us towards the story— whose existence, or lack thereof, I will soon discuss—begins from the perspective of a zoomed-out camera following a car going through a barren American desert sometime in the future; the owner of the car will soon be introduced to viewers as Nish, a British woman visiting the States to surprise her father for his birthday. This first level of narrative, what Genette calls extradiegetic or first degree, will soon segue into what the zero-time of the discourse—the orienting point of narration. The first few minutes of the episode, during which Nish sets up her car to charge and discovers the museum that coincidentally exists on the land of the abandoned gas station, contain some more subtle ellipses, or jumps in time: while waiting for the museum to open—a period of time filled with anticipation not just for Nish but for viewers— Nish wanders to the back of the building and curiously investigates the air conditioner unit, followed by a jump in the discourse to several minutes later when Nish is checking to see if the museum has opened.
This moment calls the critical viewer’s attention to the way that Genette thinks narrative should avoid psychological tools such as anticipation, as they make the understanding of the narrative more focused on the reader than the content. This instance of ellipsis manifests anticipation by not succumbing to the temptation to linger too long in that moment of suspension. From the onset of the narrative, before the main instance of zero-time has even begun, the reader’s attention is called to the fact that the manipulation of time, and the relationship among the present, the future, and eventually the past in the discourse is connected in some way to the content.
Shortly after Nish is introduced to Rolo Haynes, the proprietor of the Black Museum, who warns her that the museum is “not for the faint of heart” and enters into the museum, the camera pans onto the exhibits of the museum, all of which directly reference crimes committed in previous episodes of Black Mirror. Through including these objects, the show introduces “into one situation, by means of the discourse, the knowledge of another situation” (Genette 234); through tipping its hat to previous episodes, the show may seem to be offering a small reward to Black Mirror’s devoted fans; but if we choose to understand these objects as levels that exist hierarchically, then each level built on top of the next, the past into the present, “[does] more than simply […] produce[s] present effects, the past rather seems to be a living, disturbing and traumatic presence” (Puckett 271). These allusions to previous episodes are relevant as we think about the way that each item exists in the extradiegetic level as that which narrative theorist David Wittenberg calls paratext.
For now, it is important to think about the different levels and the way they relate to time and space as presented in discourse. The zero-time, occurring as Haynes gives Nish a tour of the swelteringly hot Black Museum— a place where things that have “done something bad” are likely to find themselves. In this episode, each of the stories that Haynes tells Nish are related to the zero-time, as Haynes plays the role of the intradiegetic-heterodiegetic narrator, and they each are tied to a physical object in the museum: Dawson’s Symphatic Diagnoser, a stuffed monkey, and the final exhibit behind the red curtain. Unlike the objects previously noted in the discourse, Dawson’s Symphatic Diagnoser and the monkey have no relation to previous episodes in the series, each serving as advance notice for the stories that follow. They are both proleptic, in the aforementioned sense, and analeptic as they are relevant only through past events.
Haynes calls Nish’s attention to the Diagnoser and offers a retrospective account of past visitors’ reactions to the device through use of anachrony. Haynes’s use of iterative—narrating once what happened n times in the story— is his way of creating a metadiegetic narrative that involves his past self, focusing on the anticipation he created then and is recreating as he narrates in the zero-time. Haynes’s creation of this additional narrative, which the zero-time narrative could have easily done without, preps for the rest of the discourse, in which Haynes both plays a fundamentally important role in the stories he tells, and is an outsider to the experience of each narrative’s characters. The repeated fascination of past museum attendees, who “rush behind the curtain,” is itself an advance notice of humans’ fascination with pain, which is manifest at different points in the narrative.
Haynes begins his intradiegetic-homodiegetic narration of the story of Dr. Peter Dawson, an emergency room doctor at St. Juniper’s hospital, where patients with poor health-care coverage receive free care in exchange for participating in medical experiments. The intradiegetic narrative lasts ten seconds before the discourse switches back to the zero-time of Haynes’ narration. This narrative feature points to the episode’s existence as the aforementioned paratext.
A paratext, as Wittenberg describes it, is a way of understanding the discourse that complicates its relation to story. In thinking of a discourse as a paratext, we shift from thinking about it as an out of order recreation of a story that is a priori, which exists outside of and happened prior to, the discourse. Paratext understands the text as the only thing we actually have, namely the physical object. The paratext, whether it is a physical compilation of pages, like a book, or a combination of pixels and sound coming from a television episode, is determined by itself, not by some story that exists externally. It exists in the chronotope—space and time—of the person watching the television, and when understood as such, keeps the viewer from assimilating into the world of the narrative. The viewer is forced to be constantly and critically aware of the singularity of the narrative, eventually becoming aware of their own involvement in the scheme of things. Understanding the discourse as paratext allows us to become multiplex viewers, who look from nowhere and see the entirety of the paratext, eventually moving from an understanding of a discourse that refers to a story and instead seeing a paratext that refers to something else.
The second-level narrative of Dr. Dawson continues—his mortality rates were “through the roof,” as Haynes puts it. He turns to Haynes, who at the time worked in “recruitment” and tech at St. Juniper’s, to help him improve his practice. Here is where Dawson enters the narrative—despite undoubtedly being a major part of the story events, it is crucial to note that Haynes only plays a role in the creation of and “solutions” to the problems that Dawson eventually faces. Much like Propp’s note that the story only begins when the hero leaves home, Dawson’s story only begins in relation to Haynes and the introduction of his technological implant, which will allow Dawson to feel the pain of his patients in order to properly diagnose illnesses. After the installation of the device, Haynes plays little role in the middle section of Dawson’s story. However, the narrative continues in the shape of an intradiegetic-homodiegetic narrative even though it should have shifted to an extradiegetic-heterodiegetic narrative. This anomaly in the shape of narrative is combined with the frequency with which the narrative shifts between the intradiegetic stories and the zero-time of the discourse. For example, as Haynes explains to Nish the way that the Symphatic Diagnoser allowed Dawson to feel pleasure as well as pain, the camera shifts to Dawson in bed with his girlfriend, experiencing both male and female orgasms. Just as Dawson is saying to his girlfriend “I can’t get enough of your…” the camera switches back to the zero-time and Nish saying the word “but.” The viewer laughs, but also wonders whether or not Dawson’s complete sentence was “I can’t get enough of your butt,” as the narrative insinuates. This train of thought, as the viewer wonders how Nish could have so appropriately finished Dawson’s sentence, also leads them to wonder how Haynes could know about Dawson’s sex life in such detail. The narrative then invites viewers to question the concept of “fabular a priority,” the idea that a story occurred first that the discourse recreates— just like Wittenberg. Through questioning the stability of story and discourse as defined, our attention is called to the fact that neither the intradiegetic narrative being told nor the extradiegetic story in which it is recounted actually occurred—they are part of a paratext.
The Symphatic Diagnoser unfortunately got out of Dawson’s control after experiencing death through a patient. After this Dawson begins to experience pleasure from feeling pain, and eventually becomes so pleasure-hungry that he commits a murder so painful that it puts him into a comatose state. Once again the narrative calls our attention to the paratextual state, as Haynes ironically claims that Dawson is so “blissed out” from the pain of his crime that he even has an erection: “Ok, I added the boner. I couldn’t resist,” jokes Haynes. Once again, this comedic element relates to the way the narrative calls attention to itself as paratext, which has no objective truth to adhere to and remains subject only to the desires of the narrator. The physical, whether TV shows or anatomy, can be easily manipulated through narrative and viewers must be critical of what they understand as true.
Haynes then moves on to another intradiegetic-homodiegetic story, in which he uses neurological technology similar to that of the first story to transfer a comatose woman’s consciousness into the brain of her grieving husband. The events of this narrative also utilize and embody certain narrative devices. Carrie’s consciousness having been uploaded to her husband’s brain first seemed like a miracle, but over time her husband, Jack, grows tired of her constant commentary in his head. This ultimately leads to his decision to have Carrie’s consciousness transferred into the aforementioned stuffed monkey, which is given to their son as a gift and eventually placed in the Black Museum after the son grows bored with the toy. Prior to his decision to remove Carrie from his brain, Jack uses an advanced feature of the consciousness technology to put Carrie on pause. This instance of what Jameson calls literality or “the use of visual materials not to represent the world but to represent our thoughts about the world” (Jameson 3) shows how the ideas created by the narrator are embodied in discursive manifestations. When a narrative itself is put on pause, the discourse continues while a specific intradiegetic narrative within the extradiegetic narrative (in this case the manifestation of Carrie’s consciousness in Jack’s brain) ceases to move until the extradiegetic narrator (in this case Jack) presses play.
The matter of consciousness in this second intradiegetic narrative seems to beg the philosophical question “can consciousness exist outside of the body?” This question is posed by the dystopian world’s United Nations, which eventually leads to Haynes’s job termination because of his treatment of Carrie’s consciousness— is not the one that the narrative really wants to answer. This snare, much like the questions that will arise later about the treatment of other unembodied consciousness, can instead be understood as a device calling the viewer’s attention to the question of story, discourse, and paratext. Translating the philosophical question from one concerning consciousness to one related to discourse, we can ask how the way the narrative constantly addresses consciousness can call our attention to the viewer’s place as the metadiegetic reader, capable of looking at the entirety of the paratext and seeing that a trapped consciousness at the level of discourse is nothing more than words on a page—or, here, pixels on a screen stuck in the image of a museum display.
Again, the discourse is the concrete arrangement of events in a narrative which, in narrative theory, is traditionally understood to have happened in a certain order in a story. Wittenberg explains that this desire for a story to be created from the discourse comes from the reader’s desire to find something that the discourse references, and not about attributing some kind of historical temporality. If there does not need to be some self-sufficient story that the discourse tries to recreate, if the relation between discourse and story can be chalked up to a need for reference, then we can replace that reference to story with reference to something entirely different—and it seems that this paratext can be pointing or referring to us, the viewers.
The discourse of this episode is chock full of advance mentions—from Haynes claiming that the museum is not for the faint of heart, unaware that it is his heart that will soon be weakened, to Haynes’s questioning Nish if she has “ever had a relationship where you can’t get someone out of her head?” which refers to when we will soon find out that Nish’s mother is literally in her head. These narrative devices themselves point or refer to the focus on the future, which rests at the center of the series, and hinting towards the point the narrative will make about our responsibility for both the future and the present.
Just as the posing of questions about consciousness is actually an attempt to draw the viewer’s attention to something more concrete, so too the advance mention of things that exist in intradiegetic narratives embodied in the extradiegetic narrative or zero-time, calls our attention to the way references and pointing are embodied throughout different levels. This makes it possible for us to see how the physical discourse can be referring not only to things that could occur in a dystopian future but exist in the chronotopic world where the episode is being watched. After all, the episode is a paratext, existing not in the future but in our current world. The use of advance mention calls the critical viewer’s attention to the thin line that exists in the temporality between the present and the future.
If consciousness is not a call to a philosophical question, but an invitation to think about narrative form, we must think about the way that different consciousness, or different perspectives, are manifest in form. Narrative theorist Fredric Jameson, in his review of Wittenberg’s chapter on paradox and paratext claims:
The problem, then, involves the observer, the source of the ‘point of view’. In a story the second self observes the first one, and so on ad infinitum: but who observes the final one? The reader, no doubt: but who reads the reader? The paradox is even sharper when we try to find our place in the multiverse: the privileged position of the observer can only be such in virtue of occupying one more alternate universe, which someone has to be observing in turn (Jameson 10-11).
In a multiplex narrative, where there is no focal point from which the viewer watches, there is always some other level to observe. Just as the extradiegetic narrator narrates something that exists on another level, the multiplex viewer is looking on a level that exists below it in the hierarchical order of paratext held in the hand or present on the screen. So to apply Jameson’s question to “Black Museum”—if we are going to try to zoom out to view the multiplex viewer holding the paratext in a specific chronotopic world, including them in a new intradiegetic level in the narrative, then who is viewing that viewer? The political and social commentary embedded in narrative analysis is doing this viewing, both evaluating and being affected by the way that that viewer understands a narrative like that of “Black Museum.” It is also possible to make the claim that instead of the viewer being understood as each individual watching the show, an individual who has broken the code of narrative commentary could serve as the final viewer observing the multiplex viewer of society as it watches “Black Museum.” The critical viewer evaluates how the rest of society understands the political and social commentary offered by the episode.
While “Black Museum” engages in explicit social commentary, it is of increased interest from a narrative theory perspective to look at how those comments are embodied in the form of the narrative as a whole and the texture of different narrative instances. The metaleptic way that Haynes’s voice “bleeds” into both of the worlds that he narrates is yet another way that the viewer’s focus is diverted from the dissolving the relationship between story and discourse, and drawn to the paratext and its implications. One must direct their attention not only to the content of words, or in this case scenes, not only to the events Haynes’ voice narrates but to the very fact that his voice seeps into their discursive representations on screen. Form of a narrative, much like the Latin root of an English word, which contains both the original meaning of the word and the a parallel shape as its derivation, must be understood in relation to both its shape and its meaning. While it is impossible to have form without content, it is possible to have identical forms that contain different content, and just as a piece of music contains both the content of the words and the notes on a scale, so too the content that we see manifest in the episode is not the only content that the form contains.
We noted that the discourse continually returns to zero-time, calling the viewer’s attention to the paratextual nature of a TV show in our current world, not in a future. This paratext, especially in relation to the shifts between analepsis, prolepsis, and zero-time in the discourse, is the form that creates the alternative and allegorical content to which the narrative wants to draw the viewer’s attention. The viewer is only able to get to the alternative content created by this form by looking into the details of the third and final discourse presented in the whole. Advance mentions, as noted, hold ample meaning that can only be fully understood in retrospect.
An exhausted and overheated Haynes finally shows Nish the museum’s main exhibit behind the red curtain—a holographic embodiment of Clayton Leigh “Weather Girl Killer” and Nish’s father’s consciousness. As Haynes initiates the film that tells the story of Clayton’s conviction, viewers realize that the news story of the missing weather-girl is not a new intradiegetic narrative—it appeared on TV screens in both of Haynes’ previous narratives. By understanding the complicated nature of story and discourse according to Genette and Wittenberg, the viewer now knows that “narrative can in fact offer us a paradox whereby the story not only does not precede discourse but also allows us to imagine or to reconstruct events only after the fact of their discursive representation” (Puckett 262). Viewers can rewind—a critical narrative feature in and of itself, as it provides the opportunity to look at the lack of objective order that exists in the discourse we have on hand— to the moments of retelling, where we see a discursive representation in the paratext of the news stories featuring the weather girl’s disappearance, but Haynes himself does not note those moments in his metaleptic narration of his metadiegetic worlds, once again referring us to the inconsistency of the discursive representation of an a priori story.
The revelation of the connection between previous and current narrative moments is likely not because Haynes wanted to maintain a level of suspense by not revealing anything about the exhibit behind the curtain, but instead because the narrative wanted to set up a snare for the viewer. On the first level of the narrative we have all of the past paratexts of previous episodes put into the same physical space, which calls our attention to the convergence of the second level narratives told in the discourse in the same space—Clayton’s trial in both of the second-level discourses is itself a third level intradiegetic narrative in relation to the extradiegetic narratives of each of Haynes’s narrations. Here, the narrative plays off viewers’ tendency to satisfy their own desire for narrative coherence, However, when they see that there is no discourse pointing to a story, but only a paratext that points at the viewer, they can stop attempting to find meaning in the discourse – through drawing a map of how all the different levels are connected –and instead see that the real meaning of the chain of levels is found upon placing responsibility on the viewer.
There is yet another snare in the way the narrative utilizes the desire that, according to theorist Peter Brooks, it assumes of its readers and viewers; just like the nuanced instances of pointing in Black Mirror, this snare exists in the realm of levels. On one level we can understand the subtle insertion of the Clayton’s trial in the background of the other stories as the narratives attempt to call our attention to the fact that the events of those stories needed to have occurred in order for Clayton’s to take place—in a practical sense the technology and trajectory of events led Haynes to his deal with Clayton to have his consciousness transferred after his execution. In discussing desire, Brooks calls attention to the fact that, when it comes to narrative understood through theory, we can see that the solution in a crime novel is the cause and not the effect of the crime. Mystery novels continue to produce crimes not because they want to fill pages with the details of investigations, but because they desire the solutions themselves—the snare takes the shape of suggesting that, if solutions are the reasons the novels are written, then Clayton’s trial and his ultimate end are the reason why the entire first fifty minutes of the episode occurred; this conclusion can be derived from the use of advance notice in the first two stories. Yet, the viewer who has understood that their reflection on the levels used in narrative, and the meaning they create, will know that that is not where the reach of the narrative ends. There is someone or something viewing the viewer; we are a part of the narrative levels and, therefore, part of the discourse where Clayton’s story is told and thus cannot be the resolution of the paratext, nor the cause for which the narrative was created. In such a case, the narrative and its meaning would be far too simple. The viewer informed by Wittenberg and Genette understands that the use of advanced notice to call attention to the relation between Clayton and the previous stories serves as a snare, testing whether viewers can continue to zoom out in levels to find a different meaning.
The concept that in narrative the solution produces the problem, that effect precedes cause in the trajectory of narrative on the page, points to the fact that everything prior to the viewer’s realization of their own place in the text— which only became apparent towards the end of the narrative— was the effect of narrative calling attention to the need for a “solution,” in mystery novel terms, a cause for the entire narrative prior. To answer the question raised by Genette’s understanding of levels, story, and discourse: “which happens first, the event that makes representation possible or the representation that allows us to perceive or to imagine the event?” (Puckett 262) we must say that the representation, the paratext is the effect, and the meaning that it creates in our spacetime is the cause, the thing that made its creation necessary. The combination of the paratextual, time-travel form that the narrative takes, and the content within it suggests that the cause, the meaning in our spacetime, is to get viewers to place blame and responsibility somewhere, for something, after thinking critically about Black Mirror as a whole and after watching this episode.
Blame, and where blame is placed, fuels the majority of the discourse’s progression: it is Haynes’s fault that Peter Dawson ended up in a coma; it is Haynes’s fault that Carrie’s consciousness ended up in a bear; it is because the UN made a law about rights for converted consciousness that Haynes was fired and found his way to Clayton; it is because of Haynes and the Black Museum that Clayton’s consciousness is perpetually experiencing the electric chair, and it is because of Haynes’s creation of such a sadistic form of entertainment that Nish hacked the AC system, fed Haynes poisoned water when he consequently overheated, and Haynes died (there’s the realization of that advanced mention from the first few moments of the episode) and had his consciousness switched with Clayton’s. Understanding the narrative progression as such and in light of the fact that, while “discourse is free to arrange and rearrange the order of events, […] some genres such as the folktale or myth can be characterized exactly by their unwillingness to do so” (Puckett 263). Knowledge of the fact that content embodied in form can take the shape of the ideas it represents, viewers will be included to think more deeply about blame.
To return to the allegorical content that the narrative form creates, we must think about what kind of blame the untrained eye attributes and to whom that blame is attributed. A common understanding of the Black Mirror series is that it was created to call our attention to the impending dystopian state of society, where technology will control all areas of our lives—from romantic life to the afterlife. Yet, as we have noted, this episode of Black Mirror so clearly calls our attention to the fact that it is a paratext that exists in our current world, and not in the future. Through a new understanding of the fragility of the relationship between story and discourse that becomes evident when we understand discourse as paratextual, it can be seen that there is no discourse referring to a fictional a priori story, but instead a paratext pointing and referring our attention to something else. This realization, in combination with the fact we are being called to think about its presence in the here and now, may be understood as the narrative pushing us to see how a future where technology is out of our control is not a future possibility, but a present problem.
This series demonstrates “the precedence of popular, rather than experimental narrative”— a genre in which Black Mirror can be classified, because of its place in the canon of futuristic dystopian stories— “in positing this quasi-transcendental spacetime as a real milieu of the reader, the interworld of his or her perspective […] literally [depicting] the physical conditions of ‘the Place’ where the ‘points’ from which we ‘view’ plots unfolding must be presumed to abide” (Jameson 11). This understanding, much like the one concerning the snare of the disembodied consciousness question and in light of the understanding that discourse as a paratext specifically relates to those who experience it, confirms that the narrative points to the viewers. This pointing calls on viewers to take responsibility, instead of placing blame on characters who are simply combinations of words in a physical book. While the aforementioned idea that it wants viewers to hold themselves accountable for the surplus in technological innovation is a valid possibility, several different themes in both “Black Museum” and other Black Mirror episodes suggest that this is not the solution that the narrative wants to offer, or that it is at least only a part of the end meaning.
Jameson explains that “Wittenberg’s [theory contains the] internalisation of what mandarin scholars used to call extrinsic factors (social issues, content of various kinds, the non-literary or extra-poetic)” (Jameson 5). This internalization of extrinsic factors is, I believe, the thing that Black Mirror wants to hold us responsible for— technological development is not the crime, but is a part of the narrative serving as a lens for evaluating embodied racism in the time-space in which the paratext exists, as well as noting its looming future progression. Through tropes of a system that works to keep interracial couples apart, and that places the bodies of people of color in futuristic prisons, Black Mirror refers not to a fictional story where technology is out of control, but to our current world’s racist praxis. It does this on the first level when an innocent black man is framed for the murder of a white woman. On a metadiegetic level, in which the voice of the narrator creeps into the intradiegetic narrative within our paratext, we can see that sadism is called to the viewer’s attention through the narrative of a white man uncontrollably experiencing pleasure from pain. Eventually this commentary on sadism progresses at the levels of pleasure museum goers experience via Clayton’s electrocution—an event that is manifest at both at the internal singulative level of his actual execution, the repeating iterative level of the repeated instances in which museum goers paid to inflict pain on Clayton’s consciousness, and the pseudo-iterative level of the souvenirs of screaming mini reincarnations of Clayton’s consciousness. These instances of sadism on the intradiegetic levels are relevant to this episode in the way they draw attention to allegorical “other” content produced by this form: the entertainment that viewers gain from watching this narrative unfold and the realization of a desire when the passive viewer thinks they have discovered the meaning of the intradiegetic narrative. Seeing meaning realized through the first content means the viewer has evaded understanding the meaning that exists in their own extradiegetic level.
While the show may want viewers to think critically about the advancement of technology, it does not want to key us into an awareness that technology is an autonomous force for evil, but instead uses the example of a white man using technology to create pain in the lives of a black and a biracial family—Haynes essentially pushes Jack to leave his white wife for a black woman, restoring racist societal order— to point to the meaning of the name “Black Mirror” and “Black Museum.” The content is not just in the crimes mentioned in the narrative but is allegorically the shape of racist crimes that exist in the chronotopic world where the paratexts exists. In the final scene, as Nish looks into her rearview mirror, and viewers look into the mirror from over her shoulder, watching her consciousness “see” her mom’s consciousness in her own eyes—which, as Zimmer notes, is the only way a parent can look at themselves— attention is focused not only on the reach of narrative levels, but also on the black woman looking in the mirror. After Nish enacts retribution and accepts that she will never get back what the injustice of racism took from her, the viewer notes that the show’s opening image of a cracked mirror is multileveled and racialized as well. Just like the keychains of Clayton’s consciousness, which are “always on; always suffering,” and in the words of the song that opens and closes the episode: there is “always something there to remind” us. This episode, through its form as a paratext perpetually in existence, endlessly invites viewers to either fall prey to narrative snares and comfortably attribute blame within the narrative, or choose to analyze deeper and take responsibility for the racist institutions that this chronotopic world perpetuates.