While none of this is directly related to our presentations this past week, it is certainly inspired by the cumulative knowledge of the course that we all helped to explore and extend last Thursday:
I’ve been watching the BBC’s “Sherlock” series over the course of this quarter and have found myself struck by how often the show intersects with our concerns throughout this class: issues of connectivity/connectedness, embodiment, information, and control. Throughout the series, digital media appears almost as an additional character within the show, whether through the omnipresent text messages that float onscreen, Sherlock and Watson’s respective blogs, or Moriarty’s hijacking of Britain’s telecommunications systems. This youtube video from “Every Frame a Painting” does an excellent job at explaining Sherlock’s contribution to the on-going problem of Internet representation in film. But for now I’d like to focus on the final episode of the latest season, in which, I think, a strong case is made for the primacy of embodiment over and above the disembodied free flow of information that Hayles critiques in “How We Became Posthuman.” This is perhaps surprising for a story like “Sherlock Holmes” that might easily have valorized a kind of cold, ‘pure’ intellect—instead it is the very concept of material instantiation that allows the plot to be resolved, and the good guys to win. Total spoilers ahead.
In the episode “His Last Vow,” Sherlock Holmes and John Watson attempt to take down Charles Augustus Magnussen, a Rupert Murdoch-like media mogul who is also known as the Napoleon of Blackmail, and who controls political leaders the world over through the accumulation of their secrets and weaknesses. Throughout the episode, Magnussen’s knowledge is displayed onscreen through a graphical interface that seems to appear on the lenses of his glasses; it contains pertinent information about whomever he looks at, with their weaknesses displayed in red. At one point, Sherlock, believing he has figured out Magnussen’s secret, grabs his glasses and examines them. What he finds is that they are completely ordinary, which means the interface that has appeared onscreen to the viewer is non-diagetic, and exists only as a manifestation of Magnussen’s thoughts. The moment is a potent reminder of Galloway’s assertion that “data have no necessary visual form.” This moment is doubled in a later scene, when Sherlock plans to expose Magnussen by revealing his fortress-like compound that contains all his accumulated secret documents, called Appledore. Sherlock plans to sell Magnussen a stolen laptop filled with government secrets along with a hidden GPS locator, so that the authorities will find it in Magnussen’s possession and reveal his vaults full of stolen information. As the authorities approach, Magnussen reveals that there are no vaults, that it is solely Magnussen’s flawless memory that allows him to retain information on all the people he ‘owns.’ He won’t be convicted of a crime because there is no information, only data without material instantiation. He knows who to call and where to find the physical documents he uses to blackmail, but he does not physically possess any of it. Magnussen’s power is thus relational and protocological; it is Deleuze’s idea of control and about access and knowing how to manage it that make Magnussen a master blackmailer.
When the authorities arrive, then, it is only to arrest Sherlock for the theft of state secrets. Magnussen, with no link to incriminating documents, will go free. But Sherlock discovers Magnussen’s weakness, which is precisely that he is fallen prey to the condition of “virtuality” that Hayles describes: he believes his information is “more mobile, more important, and more essential than material forms.” He forgets that there IS NO information with material instantiation—and in this case he himself is the material medium. About to be arrested for his theft, Sherlock pulls a gun and shoots Magnussen in the head. With Magnussen dead, the protocological controls he kept in place dissolve. Since there was no vault full of secret documents, the relations of force Magnussen used to exert control no longer exist. The villain’s greatest weakness was not believing in the body itself. As such, Sherlock provides a fascinating narrative about the ways embodiment can be used to resist the societies of control.