The Philosophy of Mr. Robot – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of Mr. Robot!
Written by: Alec Opperman
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Directed by: Camille Lecoq
Edited by: John Baldino
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
The Philosophy of Mr. Robot – Wisecrack Edition
Hey Wisecrack, Jared here. Today we’re talking about the story of a guy who takes down the finance industry as he talks to imaginary friends. That’s right, Mr. Robot. Mr. Robot follows hoodie-clad hacker Elliot Alderson, as he and his friends instigate a revolution and take down E Corp, a fictional megacorporation that’s the gold-standard of corporate malevolence, a conglomeration of Bank of America, Walmart and Enron. Also, Elliot is crazy. On the surface, Mr. Robot is a show criticizing capitalism. But to really understand Mr. Robot, we have to dig deeper into an idea that is woven into the very fabric of the show- alienation. Alienation means to be estranged and isolated, in the parlance of Mr. Robot: disconnected. Philosophy deals with different kinds of alienation. There’s alienation from humanity, from the world, and even personal alienation – where you have become a stranger to yourself – Mr. Robot explores them all.
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the philosophy of “Mr Robot.” Oh, and spoiler alert. Mr. Robot is about lonely people trying to connect. Sometimes that means quite literally connecting, illegally, to other people’s computers. Agent DiPierro has no life, and struggles to connect with both strange men on the internet, and her Amazon Alexa. Elliot struggles to connect with his family, his past, his friends, and even reality. And the masses, according to Elliot, can only connect to each other with Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. The show even employs visual tricks to emphasize the distance between characters, such as wide angle lenses and framing characters near the edge of the screen. Elliot’s inability to connect is caused by more than just his social anxiety, or that he talks to his dead father. Instead, Elliot’s alienation has everything to do with God. Let me explain.
Elliot is unable to understand his actions, his motives, or even his relationship to other people. Mr. Robot takes charge of Elliot’s physical body, interacting with people on his behalf, all while Elliot is completely unaware that anything has transpired. As a result, Elliot is unable to understand his relationship with his sister, Darlene, or anyone else he might have interacted with as Mr. Robot. And while Elliot’s psychosis makes his alienation from himself and others unique, the logic that dictates that psychosis is nearly universal.
For German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, whose name literally means “fire stream,” but I digress, God was the primary engine of alienation during the 19th century. Humans created the figure of God, according to Feuerbach, and instilled him with their highest ideals: justice, love, wisdom, and so on. But being a forgetful species, they forgot, looked at this virtuous God and thought “Hey, we’re so much like this guy, he made us just like him.” In this way, the fact that man made God in man’s image is inverted to “God created man in God’s image” As a result, Christianity is alienating: we become estranged from our ideals, ourselves, and each other because we can only relate to them through the medium of God, a figure that we’ve since lost control of. If this seems strangely familiar, it should. Elliot creates the figure of Mr. Robot, forgets he created him, and then goes about letting Mr. Robot run his life. In good Feuerbachian fashion, Elliot says: “Mr. Robot has become my god…” and even creates Mr. Robot in his own crazy image. Mr. Robot is even likened to omniscient God, always watching.
Elliot’s first response to the problem of Mr. Robot is to get rid of him. He pumps himself full of Adderall and starts journaling in the hopes that he can kill him off. This, in a way, parallels the atheist response to God. We invented God, now we realize it, so let’s dump God. But Elliot’s therapist convinces him the answer isn’t to dump Mr. Robot, it’s to accept his delusion as part of him. For Feuerbach, the biggest problem isn’t that we invented God, it’s that we inverted our relationship to God and said he created us. Feuerbach thinks that God is the ultimate object of thinking man, a creation that speaks to the unlimited potential of our reason. Similarly, Mr. Robot represents Elliot’s highest ideals: creating a better future without Evilcorp. One of the big issues with this kind of alienation is the loss of responsibility – you know, the old “I don’t hate you, God does.”
Elliot either suppresses the memory of the unpleasant acts he has to commit in the name of a better future, like allegedly killing a guy or imagines Mr. Robot is responsible. In the process, Elliot is unable to directly relate to the world he helps shape or his peers and instead has to relate through the medium of Mr. Robot. It’s only when Elliot admits that Mr. Robot is his own creation, that he can finally carve a path out of his own alienation. When we’ve mixed-up the relationship between God and the world around us, the world becomes confusing. Cause and effect seem to invert themselves, reality slips away, and we lose touch with our fellow man.
No longer are we the drivers of our fate, but events are laid out by the divine, or your imaginary friend. We are no longer the judge of our actions or the actions of others, God is. The rest of the world doesn’t see Mr. Robot, but that doesn’t stop the show from drawing an explicit connection between Elliot’s delusions and theirs. While Mr. Robot may be Elliot’s God, the masses have a different God: consumerism. Which brings us to a different kind of alienation. Show creator Sam Esmail holds nothing back in paying homage to other films critical of consumer culture. Aside from the obvious Fight Club and V for Vendetta references, one scene evokes John Carpenter’s “They Live”, a film exploring the “truth” behind modern capitalism and Tyrell Wellick is one big ode to American Psycho, a film where people become as disposable as commodities. Likewise, one of the central tenants of Mr. Robot is that consumer culture is a collective delusion, one the estranges us from the world and each other. When Mr. Robot reminds Elliot that nothing is real, he says: ”A world built on fantasy. Synthetic emotions in the forms of pills. Psychological warfare in the form of advertising.”
In season 1, when Elliot tries to kill off Mr. Robot with drugs, he swaps him out for a new form of religion: he decides to be “normal,” to heart things on Instagram, watch those Marvel movies, and drink Starbucks. Throughout the show, material items and wealth estrange them from their true selves. Whenever Angela Moss is confronted about her working for Evilcorp, for instance, she defends her character with displays of wealth. When she goes buy a new pair of shoes to replace a pair covered in her coworkers brains, the salesman confronts her saying: “You mean to tell me you witnessed this thing, and you’re here to buy new shoes?” Angela: “I don’t know who you think you’re talking to, but I’ll try the Prada’s next.” When again confronted at a bar by her father’s friend, she responds: “I’m 27 and I’ve got a six figure salary with the biggest conglomerate in history. And I’m just getting started.”
If Angela’s motives seem unclear to the viewer, they’re probably also unclear to her: an estranged world is a disorienting world. Angela, who stresses she needs the job Evilcorp offers her, is in the same plight as the guy who has to euthanize dogs for a living. Or the homeless guy that allows Tyrell to beat him senseless while wearing sterilized surgical gloves. In prison, Leon can only relate to Elliot with the prison’s DVD collection, namely, Seinfeld, a show about nothing. In all of these cases, mass culture and commodities inhibit our very being. Advertising and media encourage us to destroy a part of ourselves to fit in. It sells us prepackaged narratives about love and life. For Elliot, only when we destroy the alienating forces of consumerism can we finally be free.
Thus, Mr. Robot shows another kind of alienation: commodity fetishism. Commodity fetishism works a lot like Feuerbach’s alienation, and it should: it’s creator, Karl Marx appropriated Feuerbach’s work for his own ends. For Marx, instead of God mediating human relations, commodities do. We imbue commodities with abstract value in such a way that everything becomes commodified. For Tyrell Wellick, every interaction is an exchange, even going so far as to use his own body in his pursuit of greater wealth. In the case of the Washington Township trial, the people who died as a result of EvilCorp’s actions were treated as mere commodities, profits are more important than people’s lives. It’s for this same reason that EvilCorp’s executives can so easily forgive Colby after he testifies against them, every action isn’t some indicator of your character, but an exchange of goods and services. In the same vein, Phillip Price hires Angela, despite the fact that she blackmailed him. But what exactly are the stakes of alienation? In the world of Mr. Robot, it’s control. For both Feuerbach and Marx, the world is the object of collective human labor, a labor that affirms our “species-being,” our membership in the human race. Alienation destroys that species-being, because the world that we collectively build together has now been hijacked by someone or something else. It’s no surprise then, that every character from Angela, to Elliot, to Tyrell, to Price and Minister Zhang are vying for control.
The series even opens with a monologue about the people who have the real control in society. Secret board meetings control who lives and dies over shrimp cocktails. Young people are racked with debt forcing them into jobs they hate, and Elliot can’t stop the voice in his head from taking over his life. Minister Zhang is obsessed with time, surrounding himself with clocks, if only to remind him of the one thing he can’t control. Elliot is seen constantly scribbling in his notebook about control, or fighting for control with Mr. Robot. He attributes Shayla’s abuse by Fernando Vera to the invisible hand – the economic forces that control her life. In his therapist’s office, he likens the freedom afforded by contemporary society to the choice between Pepsi and Coke. The real question is: where’s the RC Cola? Both Tyrell and Elliot blame their fathers for their lack of control. Early on, Elliot blames his father for giving up when Evilcorp poisoned him.
Tyrell never wants to become his father – whose inability to speak English was a reminder of his helplessness. The journal that Elliot frantically writes about control in is aptly named “red wheelbarrow,” Tyrell’s own reminder of his father’s impotence. Tyrell also likens murdering Sharon Knowles to absolute power. And he, and others, are really into playing God. Elliot at times is unsure if he’s Mr. Robot’s God, or Mr. Robot is his God. In the end, Mr. Robot shows that nobody is really in control in an alienated world. The people at the top have become victims of their own machinations – while they may try to create an illusion of control with armies of lawyers, convoluted conspiracies, and bunkered data centers. They all experience the same alienating forces as the rest of society. Whether it be in the form of God or commodity fetishism.
Mr. Robot is not only a show about lonely people trying to connect, it’s about the engines that drive that loneliness. Whether it’s God, our imaginary friends, or the things we own, that engine distorts our perceptions and turns reality on its head. We can never really be sure what’s reality or delusion in Mr. Robot, and that’s sort of the point. In an alienated world, can we be sure any kind of reality exists?